Democracy and the SA Schools Amendment Bill
THE seminal concept and practice of democracy is referred to in several places in the constitution. Its meaning in the constitution and its application will depend on the context.
Although there may be some disagreement on the meaning and application of the concept, it is referred to in three ways in the constitution: representative, participatory and direct democracy.
For the purpose of this piece, the practice of participatory democracy is of great importance.
Democracy does not merely mean that citizens are able to cast their vote once every five years in national, provincial and local government elec- tions; it means very much more than that by allowing them to participate in the manner and way they are governed in their every day lives in society.
Participation by citizens in the decisions government make concerning their well-being is essential for an authentic democracy. This applies to the education of their children too.
It is for this reason that parents have expressed profound concern about the Department of Education’s proposed changes to the South African Schools Act by virtue of the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill as reported in the media (Daily News, November 9: Bill will ‘silence parents’, by Se-Anne Rall).
Education is one of the most crucial political and cultural issues in our society and body politic. The parents of pupils cherish their involvement in the education of their children in the public schools.
Furthermore, many of these parents make an important contribution to the well-being and operation of these schools by their fund-raising and other activities.
It is, therefore, understandable that the recent announcement made by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, that a bill is being proposed that will limit the powers of the school governing bodies (SGBs) by drastically reducing important decision-making powers that they have, has caused alarm.
These SGBs have an important component in them that consist of the parents of pupils who are elected to serve on them.
This is par excellence an important manifestation of participatory democracy which is endorsed by the provisions of the constitution as explained above.
If the proposed amendments to the Schools Act were to become law it would allow the Departments of Education in the provinces to unilaterally decide on, inter alia, pupil admissions, the language of teaching and the appointment of staff.
The proposed amendments would change the nature and operation of the Schools Act from incorporating participatory democracy as envisaged in the constitution, to one of a highly authoritarian or even dictatorial nature, incompatible with at the very least the spirit of the constitution.
Furthermore, many of the schools they are apparently aimed at, i.e., the former Model C schools, are actually functioning well. Strong objections have been made to the proposed changes.
So, for instance, as reported in the Daily News (November 9), Thirona Moodley, provincial chief executive at the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of SA, stated that “The proposals in their present form are dictatorial and undemocratic. Are we taking away active citizenry?
“These proposals have the effect of adding responsibility to provincial departments. Do they have the capacity to effectively execute these responsibilities?”
Furthermore, there have been serious allegations that certain posts in education were fraudulently “sold” by unscrupulous officials to certain persons. This is a matter still being investigated. Allowing departmental officials to unilaterally decide on appointments opens up the system to fraud and corruption.
In a similar vein Jaco Deacon, deputy chief executive of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South Africa, stated that the Schools Act allowed for the creation of public schools, with full legal personality governed by school communities through democratically elected governing bodies… that form a system so important that it was described in a Constitutional Court judgment as “a beacon of democracy’”.
It is conceded that there are indeed dysfunctional schools where there is no meaningful contribution by the parents.
The problems presented by these schools cannot be resolved by proposed legislation that would destroy the character and operation of schools that are operating in a democratic manner and making a contribution to sound education in South Africa.
This may very well be a violation of the principle of participatory democracy, referred to above and enshrined in our constitution and hence may very well be unconstitutional.
All the relevant role-players must make their voices heard on this vital issue that affects the future of our children and our society.
In this regard, there needs to be meaningful consultation to find solutions to the problems that plague dysfunctional schools, without destroying or harming those schools that operate successfully, involving the democratic participation of the parents of pupils.
This is a great challenge for all concerned.
Devenish is retired professor of public law and one of the scholars that assisted in drafting the Interim Constitution of 1994.