The Adoption of the BELA Bill Will Not Translate to Quality Education for All

Issued by the FW de Klerk Foundation on 01/11/2023


On 26 October 2023, the National Assembly passed the controversial Basic Education Laws Amendment (BELA) Bill, which it believes will improve the quality of basic education received by the majority of South African learners by creating a more just and equitable education system. 

However, those opposed to the Bill believe that it poses a serious threat to language and cultural rights in South Africa and will do little to achieve the laudable goal of equal quality education for all. 

The Bill will empower provincial education department heads to overrule School Governing Bodies’ (SGB) ability to determine admissions and language policies based on “equality” and “equity” – although these terms are not defined. This is despite domestic law and court rulings holding that SGBs are best positioned as parents or guardians of school attendees and members of their local community to ensure “democratic school governance”. 

In its submissions to both houses of Parliament, the Foundation pointed out that this would lead to an erosion of language and culture rights, as single-medium schools would be forced to provide dual-medium education, with experience showing that the dominant language leads to the extinction or severe dilution of other languages – as evident in the language transformation processes followed by public universities in South Africa.

In response to these concerns, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga, states that “the BELA Bill aspires to harmonise the powers of the SGB with the directives of the relevant provincial Head of Department (HOD)”, going on further to note that “The fact that language and admission policies were solely determined and adjudicated by SGBs with veto powers without checks and balances led to the abuse of such powers when some schools excluded learners in those schools using discriminatory practices such as admitting learners according to race, ability of parents to pay school fees, academic performance and sporting abilities.”

However, it is not language and admission policies that have led to the failed state of basic public education in the country – with only 20% of public schools properly functioning. There is an enormous gap between the results they achieve and outcomes of the other 80% of public schools, with children in the top 200 schools achieving more distinctions in maths than those in the next 6 600 schools combined.

Education, like so many other aspects of South African society, is characterised by inequality. Children with poorer backgrounds are more disadvantaged and suffer from Government’s failure to ensure this basic right in the public education system. The result, according to the Human Capital Index, is that a child born in South Africa today is 43% less productive than one with complete education and full health – pointing to inefficient spending on education.

Minister Motshekga’s belief that “the amendments address some of the key challenges that have, for years, hindered the progress of our education ecosystem” is thus out of touch with reality. So, too, is the ANC’s assertion that it “has a long-standing legacy of advocating for a basic education system that delivers quality education and the holistic development of a young mind, and the BELA bill aligns perfectly with those values.” 

If Government is serious about improving the standard of education it currently offers to some 12.7 million learners, it must rather focus its attention urgently on why, despite budgeting R298.1 billion (4.63% of GDP) for basic education during 2022/23, this expenditure has not translated to any marked improvements for learners.

In addition to efficient spending and management, quality education depends on well-trained teachers and ensuring a safe and healthy environment for learning. In 2022, 1 575 unqualified and underqualified teachers were identified in schools; 1 423 schools still only have pit latrines, whilst 80.7% have no access to laboratories; 69.9% have no library; and 35% have no sports facilities; and in the Eastern Cape, there are still 436 mud schools. Furthermore, there is a deficiency in ensuring a safe learning environment. In the Second Quarter Crime Statistics for 2022/23, 411 gang-related incidents, 83 rapes and 19 murders were reported in educational institutions.  

In the words of former President FW de Klerk: “The Constitution proclaims that everyone has a right to education and declares that the child’s best interests are of paramount importance. This means that none of us should rest until we have dramatically improved education outcomes and the conditions in which many of our children still live.” The Foundation cautions the Minister and Government to not “rest” at the adoption of this Bill, as much more must be done to improve the quality of public education in South Africa.