Objections to the BELA Bill Part 2

There is an urgent and important need for amendment to the Basic Education laws of South Africa.

The problem with the current proposal, is that it is almost exactly the opposite of what is needed.

In Part 1, we looked at some conceptual problems concerning the right to education, the best interest of the child, and the relationship between the family and the state, as enshrined in our constitution.

Here in Part 2, we will take a look at some of the problems the BELA Bill entrenches, with regard to South Africa’s constitutional commitment to democracy and social justice. We will take a look at the contents of the BELA Bill, as well as the process by which is has so far been tabled, since both are cause for deep concern.

Reversing Out of Democracy, Towards Totalitarianism.

The South African constitution, the supreme law of our country, provides for

“ a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;

…(an) open society in which government is based on the will of the people

and aims to “improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person.”

The Constitution of South Africa, 1996

Democratising a country takes time, but South Africa has committed to progressively developing her policies and administrative procedures to align with the constitution that holds our vision in place.

Therefore, any amendments to existing legislation, should seek to increase democratic participation by the people, improve alignment with human rights (including children’s rights), and improve rather than worsen quality of life for all citizens including children.

The BELA Bill claims that its aim is to align education legislation “with developments in the education landscape and to ensure that systems of learning and excellence in education are put in place in a manner which respects, protects, promotes and fulfills the right to basic education enshrined in section 29(1) of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.” Staatskoerant 13 October 2017.

Therefore, the BELA Bill should increase democratic participation, embody social justice and human rights, and improve the quality of life of educators and learners. Why then, does it seek to do the opposite?

There are a number of worrying ways in which the BELA Bill, in both content and process, constitute a significant move away from democracy and social justice, back towards the kind of authoritarian pseudo-democratic totalitarianism practised by the government during the Apartheid years.

1. Authoritarian Problem Solving Strategies

Let’s take a quick look at just three examples of problem solving strategies applied by the BELA Bill that embody the opposite of social justice and improvement of the quality of life.

Example 1: Instead of addressing, or even making provision for proper exploration of the underlying problems that lead to non-compliance with current legislation, (problems that include bullying in schools, lack of provision for children’s educational needs by government schools, abuse of learners by teachers, and more) the BELA Bill seeks to raise the penalty for keeping children ‘out of school’ from 6 months to 6 years. Plain, simple, punitive authoritarianism.

Example 2: It’s really no surprise that alcohol and ‘performance enhancing’ substance abuse are on the rise in our schools. Our learners are under immense pressure to perform within systems that actively do not cater for their needs. Youth find current educational services alienating, and often suffer immense stress as a result of the curriculum itself, even before the horrific level of bullying and abuse by staff that are becoming increasingly common. Yet, instead of constructive measures to reduce school stress and provide learners with effective channels for conflict resolution, the suggested remedy is… to control learners through invasion of their privacy and make legal provision for searching them.

Example 3: In spite of growing public awareness that many teachers still illegally use corporal punishment, and the media has, even recently, publicly covered cases that even resulted in the death of learners, it was apparently not considered important for the BELA Bill to tackle this in any way at all… However, refer back to example 1, and example 2. Let us consider that a learner playing truant with a parent’s permission or being searched for prohibited substances may be trying to drown the memory of watching their best friend beaten to death in class… Or raped… or may have been pressured into having sex with a teacher ‘for marks’.

And then there are other matters such as seeking to centralise control of school boards and home-educating families, flying right in the face of all the international research showing that the child’s educational best interest is served by de-centralised control that allows for more personalised learning…

Let us read all of this together, and consider… does the BELA Bill constitute a progressive fulfillment of human rights, social justice, democracy, and quality of life for all citizens, including children?

Or is it herding us back to the dark ages of oppression and punitive government megalomania?

2. Active Prevention of Public Comment

The BELA Bill was posted for public comment on the 13th of October 2017, and the deadline for submission is 10th November 2017.

This is less than a month.

This is the month when almost everyone affected by the BELA Bill is at their absolute busiest time of year.

So many emails were received by Adv. Rudman, begging for an extension so that the public would have sufficient time to submit properly considered comments, that his office actively asked people to stop sending emails. We could have sent far more…

The government is effectively forcing education staff and learners to choose between pursuing their appropriate educational activities at this time of year, and commenting in an informed and reasoned way, on the BELA Bill.

In other words, if the government actively wants citizens to comment, as it must do (?), then it is implicitly instructing everyone to neglect children’s education in order to do so. This could mean that those who denied the requested extension, are guilty of interfering with children’s education, and should really be put on trial and possibly given a six month sentence, (or their trial can be delayed until after the bill is passed, for a more satisfying penalty…)

It is beyond plausibility that the education department, being inter alia responsible for setting exam dates, can have tabled the bill and limited the comment period and denied an extension, by error. Unless they are grossly unfit to be involved in anything to do with education.

In other words, public comment is not wanted. Opportunity for public comment is being actively sabotaged.

It cannot be more clear, that the government would prefer to make decisions without public participation – a move away from democracy, toward totalitarianism.

3. The Child’s Right to Participate and be Heard

South Africa has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

One of the items that any Basic Education Laws ammendment Bill should absolutely obviously prioritise, is operationalising children’s rights in the educational arena.

Where are all the obviously needed amendments that make increasing provision for children in government schools to participate in all decisions that affect them, including decisions about curriculum, assessment, conduct codes, school hours, homework load?

Where are the obviously necessary amendments that protect the child’s right to play, in the face of the current fad that results in reduced play time?

Where are the obviously necessary amendments about freedom of expression, thought and belief, in the face of ever more restrictive and prescriptive curricula?

WHERE, OH WHERE, IS THE DEPARTMENT’S PROVISION FOR CHILDREN IN THEIR VERY OWN SCHOOLS TO COMMENT ON THE BELA BILL?

Why are NPO’s and private individuals rushing to use their own resources to give at least a handful of children the opportunity to quickly rush out comments?

Any education department that does not consider direct experience in democratic participation to be part of the core curriculum, cannot begin to claim that it aims to fulfill the child’s right to education. Period.

It cannot claim that it aims to align “with developments in the education landscape and to ensure that systems of learning and excellence in education are put in place in a manner which respects, protects, promotes and fulfills the right to basic education enshrined in section 29(1) of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.”

To claim this at the same time as completely failing to make any provision whatsoever for learner participation in the public comment process, is to de facto declare oneself unfit to serve in this sector.

Why is comment on the BELA Bill not the main activity in government school classrooms this week?

Because neither the BELA Bill nor the education department is particularly concerned about actual… education. The concern is with state convenience and control. This has got to change, and change as soon as possible.

Conclusion

It is time for the education services in South Africa to start serving… instead of just counting on citizens to meekly accept what’s dished out.

We simply don’t live in a time when people stay ignorant and accept what is handed to them. We are able to share information. We are able to share insight. We are able to organise and mobilise like never before.

This is a very, very bad time for the government to resort to threat and control – people are fed up and getting increasingly angry and contemptuous.

Citizens – of all ages – are gearing up to demand that the education department concern itself with upgrading its capacity to support actual education, rather than focusing on controlling for the sake of control.

Alternative education is on the rise all over the world, and it is working. The future we face demands a different approach.

It’s time for the government to use the best of everything to develop effective education services in South Africa, instead of trying to shoot at the holes that are currently sinking their ship.

It is hard for this author to unpack and understand the implications of the BELA Bill amendments around language of instruction, but given the importance of this issue in South Africa, and the tone and intent of the rest of the bill, this is also potentially problematic. Some problems simply can’t be solved by renovating inefficient structures, and home-language education is one of these. It’s really, really hard to provide a first-language medium of instruction for each and every learner in government-style schools, but relatively easy to do this with alternative education.

The enormous and growing number of families in South Africa with educational treasure to offer is currently being ignored. The government has not yet realised that instead of treating alternative education as a plague to control, it needs to draw on this resource for input and advice.

We are here. We are willing. We have a lot to offer. Children know what they need, and we can help the government tap into that wisdom. Free our potential and we will free yours!

Knock on our doors to include us (instead of ‘regulate’ us). We’ll be home!

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