Home Lifestyle ‘Hands off our children’: BELA Bill draws ire of parents

‘Hands off our children’: BELA Bill draws ire of parents

by Zahid Jadwat

The Basic Education Laws Amendment (BELA) Bill is under scrutiny. 


Michael Komape went to school one fateful day in January 2014, never to return. The five year-old met his fate in a pit latrine toilet at his school in Chebeng, Limpopo. His parents sued, but that did not bring him back.

The Komape case cast a spotlight on the issue of pit latrine toilets in South Africa. Pit latrines, as notorious as they are for the untimely deaths of school pupils, persist all over. But they are just one of the myriad challenges plaguing the public education sector in the country. There is much need for reform.

The Basic Education Laws Amendment Act (BELA) Bill was recently passed by the National Assembly (NA). Now before the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), the upper house of Parliament, it has been the subject of fierce debate within the education fraternity.

“Hands off our children!” demands Zainab Çelen. Like many other parents and educators, the Newcastle-based educator fears what the BELA Bell might spell for homeschooling. “We can see the danger and distortion you wish to bring forward,” she says. “As parents and educators, we are taking a stand for our children”.

She is not the only one. After attending a single hearing on the proposed law, Stephany van der Walt, a vocal critic from Gauteng, became deeply troubled by the implications of the BELA Bill. Very soon, she says, she found herself “eating, sleeping and breathing BELA Bill”.

That is not to mention several political parties that have opposed the Bill, threatening to take legal action should it be approved. But what is the issue here, exactly?

“When a person starts pulling at the 54 Clauses of the BELA Bill and taking its sections apart,” says Stacey can der Walt, “it becomes clear that there is more to it than meets the eye”.

“What we need is educational reform. What we will be getting via the BELA Bill’s amendments is government overreach and the centralization of our public school sector. That’s not what we asked for. That’s not what the children of South Africa need!”


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Homeschools and independent schools

Far more affordable than the private schools, homeschooling is a favoured choice among those seeking better options than what the public system has to offer. Now it is under threat, concerned parents and educators say.

Among the sweeping changes proposed for the education sector, the trouble for homeschoolers lies in Clause 35. It stipulates that the head of department could at any point de-register a child should it be deemed necessary. Parents who then fail to send their child to a mainstream school could face imprisonment.

“DBE [Department of Basic Education] has, to this day, not conducted adequate research on the homeschooling sector, therefore they do not understand the home education phenomenon. Will they be able to regulate what they do not understand? Many don’t think so!,” says Stacey.

It goes further. Beyond registration requirements, assessment requirements might disrupt homeschooling.

“Currently, home education is an affordable alternative to private schooling, but Clause 35 is proposing that learners be assessed at the end of each phase. This will be costly,” she adds.

“Many also fear that the most beloved and popular home education methods will not survive in a BELA Bill world as these methods can’t be assessed. One can after all not determine how heavy something is by using a ruler!”

Additionally, the Association of Muslim Schools (AMS) chimed in that madressas – centres for Islamic learning – could also be jeopardised. This was because they would fall under the oversight of the Bill.

“The enforcement of the homeschooling clause might pose problems for those parents who wish to home school their children using a curriculum based on the Islamic value system, including Hifz,” says Ebrahim Ansur, regional director AMS in Kwa-Zulu Natal.


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Government overreach

Most concerning for those who oppose the BELA Bill is the unprecedented amount of powers that will be afforded to the Department of Basic Education. School governing bodies (SGB) will be stripped of much influence they previously held.


For example, SGBs will lose much of their influence to the provincial HoDs. The Bill may leave the previously influential SGBs disempowered on issues such as admission and language policies.


Says Zainab: “Through the BELA bill our government is trying to remove control from parents and educators into the hands of an authoritarian government-controlled governing body. The BELA bill provides a clause for the Minister of Education to maintain a total veto over decisions made by school governing bodies, educators and parents”.

Although not part of the BELA Bill, parents opposed to Childhood Sexuality Education (CSE) are concerned about what might be imposed on impressionable children. This is especially the case with independent and home schools focused on delivering education with an Islamic ethos.

Celen does not approve of “un-Islamic” concepts being taught under CSE curricula, but the BELA Bill means she might soon not have a say in the matter. Gender-neutral pronouns and crossdressing are things she will have no control over. Faith-based values will take a backseat.

“CSE, while important and necessary, if left totally in the hands of our government, has the potential to make un-islamic indoctrination of our children compulsory. They wish to take the narrative away from parents and faith-based approaches. No child should be exposed to and encouraged into alternative lifestyles without the guidance of their parents or guardians,” she says.

Deeply concerning for Stacey is the potential for the authority of parents to be undermined under the new law, should it be approved. She points to protesting outside schools, a last resort parents may be barred from exercising.

“In a BELA Bill world, no disruptions during school proceedings will be allowed! Some have stated that they will simply keep their kids from school, should CSE be rolled out in their district. That won’t be tolerated in a BELA Bill world!”


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What next?

For now, parents and other stakeholders have the option to voice their concerns at a public hearing near them, before the NCOP can vote on the matter. Hearings are set to continue until the end of February, but even this might be difficult.

Zainab admits to not having participated in a hearing, as concerned as she is about the repercussions of the BELA Bill. But, she argues, the public hearings were held in far-flung areas – impractical for most.

“My main concern is the deliberate choice by the NCOP to hold discussions in hard to reach areas away from central hubs, a prime example being that the KZN hearings were held in Dundee, Phongola and Ixopo, 5-7 hours drive away from Durban and Pietermaritzburg which should have been obvious choices.”

Like many others, Stacey and Zainab both agree there is a need for reform in the education sector. But the BELA Bill, they feel, simply does not deliver the urgent reforms needed to improve access to education in a country long haunted by the inequalities of its past.

Zainab calls for an emphasis on early childhood development programmes, not whether or not a parent should be able to homeschool their child. “Funds need to be channelled into foundational education rather than be drastically cut down,” she says.

In her view, these should be the top priorities of the department: “Safe infrastructure for learners from all phases; the removal of all pit latrines; school libraries made available and maintained at all schools; availability of computer and technology labs; availability of safe and regulated sports infrastructure [and] upgrading all tin-walled schools to brick and cement”.

For the most part, AMS does not see the BELA Bill having drastic effects on Muslim schools as “most of the clauses in the Bill affect the public schooling system,” says Ansur.

However, he notes, “AMS will continue to monitor developments and will do whatever is necessary to protect the constitutional rights of our parents to exercise their choice of an educational programme if they choose to opt for home schooling for their children”.

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