AUTONOMY, LANGUAGE, RIGHTS:
FW DE KLERK FOUNDATION’S SUBMISSION ON THE BELA BILL
Issued by the FW de Klerk Foundation on 07/02/2024
The Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill (also known as the “BELA Bill”) has sparked intense debate and scrutiny across South Africa. The Bill was opened for comment by Parliament’s second house, the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), after having been passed by the first house, the National Assembly (NA). The FW de Klerk Foundation has meticulously crafted a submission to the NCOP, outlining our profound concerns regarding its potential impact on South Africa’s education system and constitutional framework.
Understanding the BELA Bill
The BELA Bill proposes amendments to the South African Schools Act of 1996 (“SASA”) and the Employment of Educators Act of 1998 (“EEA”). Its primary objective is to modernise and align these laws with modern educational needs. However, the proposed amendments have raised significant concerns among stakeholders regarding their compatibility with constitutional rights and principles.
Threats identified in the BELA Bill:
1. Threat to School Governing Bodies’ autonomy:
The BELA Bill undermines the power of parents by removing autonomy from School Governing Bodies (“SGBs”) and giving it to the State. SGBs consist of members, the majority of whom must be parents whose children are learners in the school. They are integral to managing educational affairs at the local level. The Foundation emphasises that SGBs are best placed to make decisions in the best interests of the learners and that they play a pivotal role in fostering community ownership and accountability in schools.
However, the BELA Bill empowers provincial education department heads to overrule these parents’ (through their SGBs) authority in determining admissions and language policies.
Specifically, the Foundation is concerned that the Bill will infringe upon the right to education in an official language of your choice (section 29(2) of the Constitution), even as the State has failed to effectively expand the official languages that education is offered in.
2. Threat to linguistic diversity:
The BELA Bill’s implications for linguistic diversity and language rights in South Africa raise profound constitutional concerns. The evident intention of the Bill is to compel remaining single-medium Afrikaans schools to adopt dual-medium education in English and Afrikaans. This approach, as history demonstrates, often leads to the dilution or extinction of Afrikaans, mirroring language transformation processes observed in public universities across the country.
Moreover, the Bill seeks to limit SGBs’ appeal options, directing them to seek recourse from MECs for Education rather than the courts, effectively overturning the precedent set by the 2018 Hoërskool Overvaal vs Panyaza Lesufi case. In this landmark judgment, the Pretoria High Court ruled against the Gauteng Education MEC’s attempt to compel Overvaal High School to admit English-speaking students, safeguarding the school’s language policy.
The ongoing erosion of Afrikaans at both basic and tertiary education levels underscores the urgent need to protect language rights and cultural diversity. The FW de Klerk Foundation’s CRL Report Card highlights the persistent threats to cultural, religious, and language rights in South Africa, emphasising the imperative of addressing these challenges comprehensively.
To unlock the full potential of South Africa’s linguistic diversity, policymakers must prioritise the preservation and promotion of indigenous languages as required by section 6(2) of the Constitution. Language rights are not just constitutional imperatives; they are essential for unlocking economic, educational, and socio-cultural opportunities embedded in indigenous languages.
3. Neglect of the home-schooling sector:
The BELA Bill overlooks the concerns raised by the home-schooling sector regarding registration and inspection that infringe upon parents’ constitutional right to choose the form of education best suited for their children (section 29 of the Constitution) and the right to privacy (section 14 of the Constitution).
4. Criminalisation and socio-economic realities:
The Bill’s proposed criminalisation of parents for non-compliance with their child’s compulsory school attendance from Grade R will disproportionately impact vulnerable families facing socio-economic challenges. This underscores the pressing need to reconsider the appropriateness of criminalising parents in an attempt to address attendance issues in our schools.
The Foundation’s proposed remedies:
To address the significant concerns raised, the FW de Klerk Foundation advocates that Parliament make a series of changes to the BELA Bill:
1. Preserving SGB autonomy: The Foundation recommends the removal of provisions that strip SGBs of their rightful decision-making authority in educational matters. Centralizing power within Provincial Departments, already burdened and under-resourced, undermines democratic governance principles enshrined in the Constitution.
2. Addressing socio-economic disparities: Policies should be implemented to acknowledge and rectify socio-economic disparities in education access. It is imperative to ensure that all learners, regardless of their background, have equal opportunities to quality education.
3. Protecting linguistic diversity: Minority language communities must retain the right to access education in their mother tongue. Safeguarding linguistic diversity is essential for promoting inclusivity and preserving cultural heritage.
4. Engaging with home-schooling communities: Meaningful dialogue with home-schooling communities is vital to address concerns and uphold their constitutional rights. Collaboration ensures that home-schooling practices remain in line with educational standards and regulations.
5. Promoting inclusive education: Policies should be developed to cater to the diverse needs of South Africa’s learners, prioritizing access to quality education for all. Inclusivity should be at the forefront of educational planning and implementation. Monitoring system should be put in place to hold teachers, principals, circuit managers, education district offices and SGB’s accountable for providing quality education.
The FW de Klerk Foundation urges all South Africans who share our commitment to constitutional values to support our mission. Your financial donation will enable us to continue our vital work in promoting constitutional rights and ensuring that quality education remains the cornerstone of our democracy.
Together, we can build a future where every citizen’s right to quality education is fulfilled, respected and protected.