New laws for schools in South Africa pushed through – already face legal threats

 ·27 Oct 2023

The National Assembly has approved two bills – the controversial Basic Education Laws Amendment (BELA) Bill and the Upstream Petroleum Development Bill.

The BELA Bill has come under scrutiny by stakeholders in education and has sparked much debate around the government’s intentions to centralise and control access to education in South Africa.

The bill was adopted by the Portfolio Committee on Basic Education on 26 September.

While the bill will be making a host of changes to schools in South Africa – including supported amendments like making Grade R compulsory and abolishing corporal punishment – provisions giving the government ultimate control over the admission and language policies of schools have faced significant backlash.

In terms of language policy, the bill provides that a school governing body will now be required to submit the language policy of a public school and any amendment thereof to the head of department for approval.

The language policy must also take into consideration the language needs of the broader community. The bill further provides that the South African Sign Language has the status of an official language for purposes of learning at a public school.

While the Portfolio Committee on Basic Education held extensive public hearings in all nine provinces, received written submissions, and held public hearings at Parliament for interested parties and organisations to make further oral submissions, critics of the bill believe that it is unconstitutional.

Opponents have also argued that the government has ignored thousands of comments that have spoken against provisions in the new laws.

The main arguments against giving the government final say on language and admission policies revolve around taking power away from school governing bodies and communities to determine what is best for children, and handing it to politicians.

Trade union Solidarity has already threatened to launch legal action against the government if the bill is enacted, saying it is ready to take the matter all the way to the Constitutional Court. The union believes the laws are an abuse of power and a threat to Afrikaans and mother tongue education in the country.

The opposition DA said it will also take the bill on legal review.

“While we support educational reform, we will not support a Bill that disempowers schools, parents, and communities and fails to address a single one of the systemic challenges that impede quality education, like overcrowding, poor literacy and numeracy, dropouts, terrible school infrastructure, poor quality teaching, and lack of resources,” the DA said.

The party said that the ANC government has failed in education and the development of indigenous languages, and is now looking to scapegoat the 5% of Afrikaans schools for its failure to provide quality education in all schools regardless of a child’s geographical location, race, religion, or language.

Read: New laws for schools in South Africa – big changes for homeschooling and language policies move ahead

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