27 September 2023
Joint media statement: Equal Education and the Equal Education Law Centre welcome improvements to the BELA Bill but remain concerned about the criminalisation of parents and caregivers
Yesterday, 26 September 2023, the Portfolio Committee for Basic Education adopted the final Basic Education Laws Amendment (BELA) Bill and referred it to Parliament for consideration. This comes after many years of the Bill being in development and an extensive and contentious public consultation process. The Bill, once finalised, will bring the most significant changes to basic education laws in the last decade.
The BELA Bill aims not only to bring education laws in line with court judgments but also to update the law so that it is more relevant to the current needs of learners and the sector broadly. For the main part, we welcome the latest changes to provisions made in response to public comments. However, we remain concerned that the Bill unjustly criminalises parents and that this seriously threatens the best interests of the child.
In June 2022, Equal Education (EE) and Equal Education Law Centre (EELC) made joint written and oral submissions to Parliament on the Bill. We raised concerns and suggested amendments regarding particular provisions, some of which have now been included in the final version of the Bill:
- We welcome the removal of ‘intergovernmental committees’ provision
Initially, the Bill proposed the formation of intergovernmental committees to “assist” learners in obtaining necessary documents but the proposed representatives on these committees included the Department of Home Affairs, South African Police Services, and the Department of Labour. This indicated that these committees could be used for the purposes of immigration control. Fortunately, this provision was removed.
- We remain concerned regarding documents “required” for school admission and the criminalisation of parents/caregivers for submitting false or misleading information
The BELA Bill proposes that learners must provide “required” documents with their application for admission to a school. Despite noting that learners without these documents “shall nonetheless be allowed to attend school”, the term “required” documents is misleading and leaves room for misunderstanding. In addition, the Bill still says that parents who submit false or misleading information and documents can be put in jail for 12 months, given a fine, or both. It is concerning that caregivers who want to improve their children’s education, and who may already face financial challenges and come from marginalised communities, could be penalised. This could also have a negative impact on families who are not citizens and have struggled to obtain legal status due to delays at the Department of Home Affairs.
- The criminalisation of parents/caregivers who prevent their children from attending school remain
The final version of the Bill retains the extended jail time—from six to 12 months—for anyone, including caregivers, who prevents a child from attending school without a good reason. It is concerning that the members of the Portfolio Committee paid such little attention to this provision because criminalising parents and caregivers does not solve the underlying reasons why children sometimes do not go to school. In South Africa, many parents may choose not to send their child to school for legitimate reasons, for example, if the school’s infrastructure presents a significant safety risk to the child. This clause also fails to recognise the potential harm to children, should their primary caregiver be incarcerated.
- We welcome the removal of the provision allowing the limited sale of alcohol at school functions
The Bill’s initial provision that allowed for the limited sale and consumption of alcohol during school activities, which could have posed a serious threat to learners, has been removed. This will help ensure schools remain alcohol and drug-free spaces to protect learners from interactions with those under the influence and from consuming alcohol themselves.
- We also welcome that, despite much opposition, the Department of Basic Education protected provisions clarifying the powers of SGBs
The final version of the Bill significantly clarifies the powers of provincial education departments (PEDs) and school governing bodies (SGBs) regarding school admissions and language policy. It confirms that the Head of Department of the PED can make the final decision on public school admissions and should oversee SGB decisions on language policies to prevent discrimination. The powers of SGBs regarding school admissions and language policies have been a contentious issue that has resulted in many court cases. The changes align with court rulings on the link between SGBs and PEDs.
Even though some of our concerns remain unaddressed in the final Bill, we hope for its swift finalisation by Parliament because the Bill has been years in the making and is long overdue.
To arrange a media interview with Equal Education, please contact Jay-Dee Cyster (Communications Manager) firstname.lastname@example.org or 082 924 1352
To arrange a media interview with the Equal Education Law Centre, please contact Anele Gcwabe (Communications Officer) at email@example.com or 071 143 6608