Youth Month 2021: Dr Zakeera Docrat

Youth Month 2021: Dr Zakeera Docrat

June is Youth Month, and this year the NRF is celebrating the Youth of the NRF who are Advancing Knowledge, Transforming Lives and Inspiring a Nation. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us and we hope that you are inspired by the young dreamers and achievers who are affiliated with the NRF through their work or studies.

Dr Zakeera Docrat is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Forensic Linguistics/Language and Law at the University of the Western Cape.

Dr Docrat has received NRF funding in the form of scholarships and bursaries for the following degrees: Bachelor of Arts Honours Degree in African Languages; Master of Arts Degree in African Languages with a focus on Language and Law; PhD in African Languages with a focus on Forensic Linguistics/Language and Law, and a Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2020. These bursaries were awarded via the DSI-NRF South African Research Chair (SARChI) in the Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education at Rhodes University. All of the conferences she attended during her postgraduate studies were sponsored by the NRF.

This is her story…

I was born and grew up in Makhanda, formerly Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape Province. I grew up in a family that could speak isiXhosa (the language of the province of my birthplace) fluently. I used to communicate with customers in my mom’s business in isiXhosa. I attended the Diocesan School for Girls in Grahamstown where I matriculated. I then enrolled at Rhodes University where I completed the following degrees over a ten year period [BA; BA Hons (cum laude); LLB; MA (cum laude); PhD].

I had a passion for isiXhosa as a child, and I found it fascinating that I could communicate with and understand people who spoke the language. Our late housekeeper and gardener would speak to me in isiXhosa. I was extremely fortunate in that my mom encouraged me to speak isiXhosa to her customers in her business. I began learning the language more formally at primary school (St Andrews Preparatory School, Grahamstown) and then I continued with it throughout junior and high school. I matriculated with isiXhosa as a first additional language and received a distinction for it. I absolutely loved the subject at school and I continued to be encouraged to speak the language. My senior school teacher, Shelly Roodt, always reminded me that language has the ability to break down social and cultural barriers and the importance of speaking to people directly in their mother tongue. I ended up registering for a BA degree at Rhodes University in 2010 where I majored in isiXhosa and Legal Theory.

My intention was to go to university, obtain my BA and LLB, and then enter legal practice. In my final year of my BA degree, I wrote an essay focusing on language legislation for my now current mentor, Prof Russell Kaschula (former DSI-NRF SARChI Chairholder). That essay was so well received that I realised I could pursue the research area of language and law and combine both of my passions. I then opted to do my BA Honours degree in African Languages which was awarded with distinction and academic colours. I wrote a mini-thesis where I extended the definition and application of the socio-economic rights tool, Meaningful Engagement, to be used in language planning and policy processes. This was the basis for my first journal publication and op-ed piece. My research was used in developing the Rhodes University Language Policy.

I proceeded to do my LLB degree. I realised more and more the important role of language in the legal system, especially the unfairness and inequality for the majority of persons accessing courts and police stations and having to communicate in English or be reliant on interpretation services, which are, in most instances, unreliable, unavailable, or of poor quality.

With this passion now ignited, I decided to research further at a Master’s level where my MA thesis, awarded with distinction, focussed on the role of African languages in the South African legal system as a transformative tool.

I then registered for a PhD, knowing that I could contribute to the field of forensic linguistics/language and law by focussing on the exclusionary language of record policy of courts in South Africa and how monolingual university language policies support a monolingual English-only legal system. The issue for me was that the majority of our people are excluded on the basis of language, yet we live in a multilingual country. My PhD was completed in two years.

I was then awarded the postdoctoral research Fellowship for the year (2020) at Rhodes University under the mentorship of my supervisor and mentor, Prof Russell Kaschula. I continued to publish and attend conferences and work on converting my PhD into a book publication (see further details below).

So in actuality, growing up I never imagined I would have achieved so much and I would have completed my university education with a PhD. The journey has been incredible – I am so glad I continued on this path.

Did you have to overcome any obstacles to be where you are today, and what did you learn from it?

Yes, I encountered numerous obstacles along the way at university. There was a lot of racism from certain individuals and lecturers. Institutional patriarchy was a massive obstacle that I continue to deal with. In a sense, you are up against a system while completing your research and you have to constantly deal with individuals who undermine your ability, your research and attempt to divert you from your path. I have learned that if you are focused, work hard and believe in yourself, no one can deter you.

What is your research focus on/what is your area of expertise?

My research focuses on the use of language in the legal system (including the SAPS). I specifically focus on the nine official African languages and Afrikaans and how these languages are marginalised in courtroom discourse and the legal profession. My area of expertise is Language and Law/Forensic Linguistics. I am a forensic linguist by profession, which includes language in law; legal interpretation and translation; textual status and analysis, and plagiarism. 

How can your research/work advance knowledge, transform lives and inspire a nation?

My research, when implemented, will create a linguistically transformed legal profession, court system and university system. It will enable the following:

  • LLB graduates will be linguistically competent in an official language other than English – this will give effect to both Sections 6(2) and 29(2) of the Constitution;
  • Judicial officers will be linguistically competent in an official language other than English;
  • African language-speaking litigants will be heard directly in courts of law in a province where that language is a majority spoken language;
  • Court interpreters will be legally and linguistically trained to offer quality interpretation and translation services for appeal and review processes (as in Canada and Belgium);
  • The Section 35(3)(k) language right will no longer be an interpretational right for an African language-speaking accused. This will afford equal access to courts and the broader legal system (including the SAPS) for all African language-speaking persons;
  • My research provided both African and global models that have drawn upon in creating a model for South Africa. Case studies include Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Australia, Belgium, Canada and India.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

Winning the following awards and having my research recognised on the national stage and highlighting the importance of language in the legal system:

  • Women in Science Award – Albertina Sisulu Doctoral Fellowship in recognition of my outstanding academic and research ability (Department of Science and Innovation);
  • Most outstanding MA thesis in Southern Africa (African Languages Association of Southern Africa);
  • Mail and Guardian 200 Young South Africans (Justice and Law Category)
  • Graduating with PhD degree (the first in the country with African languages and forensic linguistics).

A highlight is the publication of my book, A Handbook on Legal Languages and the Quest for Linguistic Equality in South Africa and Beyond (June 2021). This is an adaptation of my PhD thesis.

Also, travelling abroad to present at international conferences in Australia, Portugal and Morocco.

Did the COVID-19 pandemic (and national lockdown) change the way you work/study? How did you adapt to the “new normal”?

Given that forensic linguistics is in its infancy in South Africa and Africa more broadly, it is vital for me to attend conferences abroad; engage at these conferences with fellow researchers in the field; and contribute new knowledge from the African continent. Many conferences were cancelled and others were moved online, removing the possibility of engagement for research collaborative purposes. It was about trying to network after Zoom conferences via email and Twitter. It was also difficult for me in terms of internet accessibility and the cost of data.

What is the best advice you have ever received (and from whom)?

Work hard, persevere and give a 100% of yourself and you will reap the rewards. The important thing is to make a difference in at least one other person’s life and you would have achieved something worthwhile. This is what my mom, Glenda Docrat, continues to tell me. 

What, in your opinion, are some of the best ways to get youngsters interested in science-related careers?

Encouraging careers in research from an early age at school. Careers as researchers are never highlighted at school and often, when you get to university after completing your undergraduate degree, you will discover the interesting world of research.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

My goal for next year is to apply for an NRF rating. I am raising awareness of the importance of the discipline of forensic linguistics in South Africa while continuing with my research. My aim is to apply my research in real-life contexts as a forensic linguist.

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