South Africa

The language of silence speaks volumes

Asanda Katshwa

Her mission – which was seemingly predestined from birth – has seen Asanda Katshwa, 43, beating all the odds to become one of the best sign language interpreters in South Africa.

“This is a humbling recognition,” she says. “I was fortunate to be the first young, black, South African female to be accredited as a SA sign language interpreter by the South African Translators’ Institute in 2023.

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“There are only 11 sign language interpreters who have acquired their accreditation for the whole country and I am the only one in the Eastern Cape.”

Born in Mdantsane, Eastern Cape, Katshwa grew up with deaf parents.

“When my parents met, they were deaf. My father was born deaf, he had no ability to hear nor speak. My mother was born hearing and could talk. But when she was about seven years old, she became sick.

“I am assuming the area she was born and grew up in, the old Transkei, had many diseases and she became a victim of meningitis. This affected her hearing and she lost her ability to speak. In their early 20s, my parents met in East London at the beach, ended up together and the rest is history.”

Katshwa grew up poor and was the only child.

“My father was mainly a factory worker. Although I was raised by deaf parents, other family members usually want to take the child away from the deaf because their assumption is that parents are unable to raise a child,” she says.

“My mother refused and insisted that if she could give birth to a child, she could raise it.” Katshwa says during her childhood, it was normal for her to have deaf babysitters.

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“When I asked my mother why, she said how else could she give instructions to a person who’s not fluent in her language. So communication in the house was very easy,” she says.

“With extended family members, it became almost normal for me to interpret for family members when they came to visit. My mother was very intentional about teaching me sign language.”

Katshwa says things began to change when she went to school.

“On my first day at school, I was asked my name. I respond-ed in sign language. All the questions asked by the teacher, I would respond to in sign language. They thought I was deaf and sent me home,” she adds.

“It was a back-and-forth between my parents and the school until my mother said that at school I had to talk because she knew I could hear and speak.”

Katshwa’s time at school was difficult because she missed days due to responsibilities.

“I remember one of the funny things when going to school… if I didn’t do homework or forgot to tell my parents about a parents’ meeting, the excuse I would give was that my parents were deaf. So I used to get away with a lot of things,” she laughs.

When her parents separated, Katshwa says the magistrate and a social worker felt she was the most suitable to interpret the dissolution of her family unit.

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“My parents’ court experience was a defining period for me. It made me see the responsibility I carried and how the world was not built for deaf people and children like myself.

“I was determined to ensure there would be justice and fairness for deaf people. I wanted to study law. After matric, Katshwa continued to volunteer at a local deaf association.

“One day I travelled with their netball and soccer team to Johannesburg for a tournament. My job was to facilitate communication. I never returned home… I was poached by Gauteng’s deaf association to interpret for them as a volunteer while staying with a deaf family.

“The next year, I got part-time work as an interpreter at the office of the premier during Mbhazima Shilowa’s tenure. It was during this time that I realised sign language interpreting is more than just moving hands, it was much more complicated.”

Katshwa enrolled at Wits University and studied for a threeyear diploma to become a sign language interpreter.

“Years later, I returned and completed my BA honours. I am now in the final stages of my master’s research.”

Katshwa says her journey in this field hasn’t been easy “because you don’t respond to things and behave in an environment the same way someone brought up in a normal childhood would”.

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“As a child born to deaf people, I had a responsibility to take care of them. This means I grew up very quickly, I didn’t have an opportunity to be a child.”

Katshwa, a single mother of a teenager and two toddlers, says sign language is her heritage which she is passing down to her children.

Her children can speak but are also fluent in sign language. “They use sign language when they communicate with their grandparents. I expose them to deaf people and sign language deliberately because I believe it is their heritage,” Katshwa says.

“I’m on a journey to discover who I am outside the deaf community and sign language. Although I’ve been interpreting professionally for 25 years, I still feel like I haven’t achieved much.

“Therefore, until deaf people have full access to basic and public services anywhere, anytime, I will sleep much better,” she adds.