Democ­racy and the SA Schools Amend­ment Bill

Daily News - - MONEY/NEWS - GE­ORGE DEVENISH

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.

Limit

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’”.

Par­ents

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.

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