Tuesday 28 May

OPEN LETTER TO THE PRESIDENT | Marrakesh treaty: 10 year wait for SA’s blind people for ratification

bind letter president opinion


Blind SA and SECTION27

SECTION27, Blind SA together with thirteen other endorsing organisations have written an open letter to the President and four ministries asking that the Marrakesh Treaty, which facilitates access to published works for those who are blind or visually impaired, be acceded to.

To: The President of the Republic of South Africa,

The Minister of Justice and Correctional Services,

The Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, 

The Minister of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, 

The Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition

Dear Honourable President and Honourable Ministers, 

Ten years ago, something truly extraordinary happened, something that brought new hope to millions of people around the world who are blind or visually impaired, people like us at Blind SA and the people we represent.

On 27 June 2013, a treaty was concluded in Marrakesh, Morocco, called the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled, that promised to bring an end to what we call the ‘book famine’.

The ‘book famine’ refers to the fact that only a small fraction of books are available in formats accessible to persons who are blind or visually-impaired, such as braille or large print. In fact, between only 1-7% of all published works are available in accessible formats.

The Marrakesh Treaty provides the legal mechanisms with which to end the famine, but all of those mechanisms are only in force in countries that are party to the treaty.

But, ten years later, South Africa has not yet acceded to the Marrakesh Treaty.

Treaty in force in 118 countries 

Meanwhile, the treaty is already in force in over 118 countries who are also members of the World Intellectual Property Organisation, including diverse countries such as the United States, Argentina, and over 30 African countries. Brazil, Russia, India and China have all ratified the treaty, leaving South Africa as the last remaining BRICS country to do so. 

Blind people in those countries did not have to wait more than 10 years, as we have.

Mr President, honourable members, it is true that the South African government has several times expressed its support for the treaty and stated its intention to accede to the treaty – once its internal processes are concluded. It is also true that Parliament has proposed legislation that would, among several other things, amend South Africa’s Copyright Act to bring it in line with the Marrakesh Treaty, paving the way for ratification. Of course, there are a number of possible excuses to be made along these lines, and some of them might explain a two or three-year delay.

But the cold, hard reality is that we have been waiting for ten years – to read.

If this administration was truly committed to the rights of persons with disabilities, as is often claimed in Disability Month, then we wouldn’t still be in equality’s waiting room ten years later.

For the people who will benefit most from the treaty, school learners and university students, every year matters. A blind child who was in Grade 4 in 2013, would by now have finished school, without ever having the equal right to read as a child who is not blind. A blind student who went to university in 2019 to start a 3-year degree would suffer the same fate. Many such young people have, over the last decade, quite simply been failed by South Africa’s failure to ratify the treaty in a timely manner.

Political will

But, Mr President and Honourable Members, it doesn’t have to continue this way. In fact, one of the State’s excuses for not ratifying the treaty has fallen away, and the major impediment now is simply political will.

For some time, the State’s position was that the treaty could only be ratified once the Copyright Act 98 of 1978 was amended to bring it in line with the treaty. But in a unanimous judgement last year, the Constitutional Court ordered that new provisions be read into the relevant section of the Copyright Act immediately, creating an exception from copyright for persons who are blind and visually impaired. Although the court did not specifically pronounce on the Marrakesh Treaty (as this fell outside the scope of the case), the remedy it read into our Copyright Act made it fully compatible with the Marrakesh Treaty’s requirements.

In short, our domestic law, as it stands, transformed by the judgment, is no longer a barrier to the ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty. South Africa is now legally ready to take the next step. There is simply no need to wait another year or two, or more, for the broader amendments to the Copyright Act to first be passed.

Mr President, Honourable Members, you might ask, given the change to the Copyright Act ordered by the Constitutional Court, why do we still insist on ratifying the Marrakesh Treaty? The simple answer is this: without ratifying the Marrakesh Treaty, the access that we, blind people living in South Africa, have to large libraries of accessible format books in other countries is severely limited. These libraries require the ratification of the Treaty as a pre-condition for making most categories of books available to us. Ratifying the Marrakesh Treaty will therefore be like flicking a switch that instantly increases the books available to us through these libraries by several hundred thousand.

Administration could strike a powerful blow

The upshot is this: Every time we borrow an accessible format book from an overseas library, it not only means a blind person in South Africa can access that book more quickly than if we had to redo the whole process of making an accessible format copy ourselves, but it also saves us the tens of thousands of Rands that this process of conversion costs. This means we can dedicate our limited funds to making accessible format copies of South African books, rather than duplicating work already done in other countries. Of course, we would prefer that we didn’t have to undertake any conversion at all – but most books continue to be published in formats that are inaccessible to us, and so conversion becomes a necessary burden.

Mr President, Honourable Members, this administration has the opportunity to end our period in waiting and treat us with dignity. This administration can strike a powerful blow against the ‘book famine’ in South Africa, making a concrete difference in our lives. We appeal to you to not make us wait for the next administration and a next set of promises. You have the power to ratify the Marrakesh Treaty. Please use it.

  • Blind SA

The following organisations and individuals have endorsed this letter:

  • Legal Resources Centre
  • South African Democratic Teachers Union
  • SA Library for the Blind
  • Critical and Creative Clustered Community Project NPO
  • Centre for Child Law
  • World Blind Union
  • Treatment Action Campaign
  • Lawyers for Human Rights
  • Right to Know
  • Electronic Information for Libraries
  • South African Disability Alliance
  • ReCreate
  • South African Guild of Actors