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

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.

Source: News 24