Plain Language in a SA context
Plain Language in a South African context  
 
Plain language legislation in SA
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In South Africa, several Acts of government regulate the use of plain language in consumer communication:

  1. The Short-term Insurance Act, 53 of 1998;
  2. The Long-term Insurance Act, 52 of 1998;
  3. The Companies Act, 71 of 2008;
  4.  The South African National Credit Act, 34 of 2005, regulates that “information to consumers must be in plain and understandable language”.
  5. The South African Consumer Protection Act, 68 of 2008, not only regulates the use of plain language, but also define the concept for a South African context:

"Right to information in plain and understandable language

(1) The producer of a notice, document or visual representation that is required, in terms of this Act or any other law, to be produced, provided or displayed to a consumer must produce, provide or display that notice, document or visual representation—

(a) in the form prescribed in terms of this Act or any other legislation, if any, for that notice, document or visual representation; or

(b) in plain language, if no form has been prescribed for that notice, document or visual representation.

(2) For the purposes of this Act, a notice, document or visual representation is in plain language if it is reasonable to conclude that an ordinary consumer of the class of persons for whom the notice, document or visual representation is intended, with average literacy skills and minimal experience as a consumer of the relevant goods or services, could be expected to understand the content, significance, and import of the notice, document or visual representation without undue effort, having regard to—

(a) the context, comprehensiveness and consistency of the notice, document or visual representation;

(b) the organisation, form and style of the notice, document or visual representation;

(c) the vocabulary, usage and sentence structure of the notice, document or visual representation; and

(d) the use of any illustrations, examples, headings, or other aids to reading and understanding."

 



 

Compliance versus business needs
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In most companies and financial institutions, each customer document has different owners: business, legal, marketing (corporate identity, brand identity), IT and the CUSTOMER. Each owner has its own needs and requirements for a particular document. If the CUSTOMER experiences the document as clear, relevant, informative, “exactly what I would expect of this institution", or “exactly what I need for this product”, the document has served the business.

The customer perspective is also central to the definition of plain language in the Consumer Protection Act. According to section 22(2) of the Act, a document is in plain language if, and only if, it is clear and understandable for the target audience.

 


A customer landscape that is not plain
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The use of plain language in communication and marketing is essential. Consumers need to understand the product or service they receive. Language can hold the key in reaching and impacting your specific target audience.

In addition to the general principles for clarity and accessibility in language and layout and design, the local context, profile of the target audience, purpose and use of the document, will ultimately determine to what extent the selected language and information structure will be perceived as clear and accessible by the target audience.

South Africa differs in a number of ways from the countries where plain English norms were developed.  Our customers are multilingual, multicultural and cover a broad socioeconomic spectrum.

Local research has already indicated that the rules of plain English do not necessarily apply:

  • Words that English first language speakers use commonly, might not be well known amongst the average African language speaker (Slabbert 2010);
  • A communication style that is considered to be brief and to the point in one culture, could be received as rude, condescending or inappropriate in another (Finlayson and Slabbert 2002, Pienaar 2002);
  • Higher socioeconomic groups want detailed information – it cultivates trust.  Lower socioeconomic groups find detailed information overwhelming – it inhibits trust. (Telkom research as quoted in Slabbert 2010).

Therefore, we recommend a customer-centred approach to achieve compliance with the Consumer Protection Act (68 of 2008) and serve the business.

 


Articles and references
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    Finlayson, R and S Slabbert. 2002: "Disintegrating the agenda" – strategies of transformation discourse. Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies 20, p221-232.
    Click here to view article (2mb)

    Mazur, B. 2000. Revisiting Plain Language. In Technical Communication, the journal of the Society for Technical Communication47 (2). Accessed on 12 November 2009 from www.plainlanguage.gov/whatisPL/history/mazur.cfm
     

    Pienaar, M. 2002. The use of plain language – not that simple. Journal for language teaching 62(1&2): 146-151. November.
    Click here to view article

    Slabbert, S. 2010. Toward standards for municipal invoices in South Africa. Research report for the Water Research Commission. Research report no. TT457-10. Pretoria: WRC.

    Slabbert, S. 2010. Guidelines for domestic water accounts – towards a consistent approach in the RSA. Research report for the Water Research Commission. Research Report No.TT 458-10. Pretoria: WRC.

 

 

 



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