New school rules for South Africa are coming

 ·6 May 2024

The National Council of Provinces (NCOP) has delivered its final mandates on the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill, with eight of the nine provinces voting in favour of the changes.

At a sitting of the Select Committee on Education and Technology, Sport, Arts and Culture last week, all provinces except the Western Cape voted in support of the amended D-bill, which will introduce fundamental changes to schools in the country.

The version of the BELA Bill that was sent to the NCOP was the B-Bill, which went through a public consultation process in each province, drawing mixed responses.

Several key issues were raised – particularly around language and admission policies – which led to further amendments, resulting in the C and then D-Bills. The D-Bill was adopted by the committee last week.

Some of the major changes coming to schools in the D-Bill include:

  • Allowing schools to determine and develop their own language and admission policies, but giving the Department of Basic Education the final say;
  • Regulating various aspects of school governing bodies;
  • Making Grade R the new compulsory school-starting age;
  • Criminalising parents who do not ensure their children are in school;
  • Regulating home education;
  • Confirming the ban on corporal punishment.

Some of the biggest points of contention in the coming laws are the language and admission policies, which saw major opposition from school groups and opposition parties.

According to the DA, which has pushed back against the bill in all committee meetings, minor amendments were made to the bill in an attempt to address this.

This change was to allow schools and school governing bodies to determine their own admission and language policies – but these still have to be submitted to the provincial heads of department (HODs) for approval.

Wording in the bill also lays out that HODs will have to make any changes in consultation with the schools and communities affected. However, they have the final authority to disapprove and change these policies.

“The Bill continues to centralise power in the hands of unelected bureaucrats, undermining the crucial role of parents, educators, and local governing bodies in shaping the educational future of their communities,” the DA said.

Other opponents to the bill, such as union Solidarity, has already indicated possible legal action should the bill be signed into law.

Coming – but not for a while yet

In terms of South Africa’s legislative processes, the bill will now progress to the National Council of Provinces for final adoption and then potentially head back to the National Assembly to ratify the latest changes.

The D-Bill will be reviewed by the NA’s Committee on Basic Education and then head to the NA House for a vote.

Should the National Assembly ratify the amended version, the Bill will then be sent to the president for assent.

However, this is unlikely to happen with the current administration, as Parlimanet has announced the sixth administration will be wrapping up its duties this week, and any outstanding matters will be dealt with by the seventh administration after the elections.

“Parliament is seized with preparations for the conclusion of the sixth Parliament and the establishment of the seventh parliamentary term,” it said.

“Both Houses of Parliament – the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces – will wrap up the work of the sixth Parliament this week by considering various bills, motions, and committee reports.

“Outstanding matters and bills that are not concluded when the sixth term expires will be deferred to the seventh Parliament to ensure continuity and smooth transition.”

The DA noted that if the National Assembly rejects the NCOP’s amendments, there is a possibility that the bill could get lost in bureaucratic purgatory.

In this scenario, the Bill would be directed to a mediation committee that has to address it within 30 days.

“However, it’s important to note that a mediation committee has never been established, leading to Bills lingering in limbo indefinitely,” said DA MP Delmaine Christians.

“This procedural void raises questions about the efficiency and effectiveness of our legislative process and whether this Bill will be trapped in an unresolved status for an extended period.”

Even if the NA approves the Bill as amended, the President may also refer it back to the NA for reconsideration if there are constitutional concerns. This is less likely, given that Parliament’s legal advisors have given the laws the all-clear.

However, the president still has the option to refer the bill to the Constitutional Court for a thorough examination – either in portions or its entirety.

Read: New laws for schools in South Africa get the green light – despite objections

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