An Open Letter: Educator Engagement around the BELA Bill

The below is an open letter sent from educators to educators, surrounding the implications of the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill, highlighting specific professional concerns.

Fast Facts

  • Regulations and governance will be centralised under the control of the Minister of Basic Education, with no oversight, checks and balances, or control.

  • Independence with regard to school’s admissions policy and language of instruction may be at risk as a result of the above.

  • Teachers could be forced to teach Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) and refer learners for abortions without parental consent.

  • Teachers could be criminalised (fines and jail sentences of up to 12 months) for failing to adhere to the regulations of the Bill.

  • The powers of school governing boards (SGB) will be limited and restricted.

  • Standardised curriculums could be imposed with no consideration for religious values or the requirements of special needs learners.

25 July 2023

Dear Fellow Educators,

We trust that you have heard about the BELA Bill and are somewhat familiar with this pending legislation. Perhaps you have heard about the BELA Bill Public Hearings that took place nationally over the past few weeks.

For those who are unaware, the BELA Bill is the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill that is currently being deliberated in Parliament in an attempt to make amendments to the South African Schools Act (SASA) of 1996.

The Department of Basic Education claims that the BELA Bill seeks to align the SASA to the other existing laws of South Africa, and ensures that the BELA Bill is transformative and promotes social cohesion.

These sound like noble ideals, however the BELA Bill in its current form does not, regrettably, address the inherent challenges in education, and all it really seems to achieve is to strengthen the administrative capacity of the Minister of Basic Education to make broad policy decisions.

According to the Bill, the Minister will, in effect, be authorised to have unlimited powers to make a number of policy decisions without prescription or rigorous mechanisms for stakeholder engagement.

Unfortunately, educators, School Governing Body (SGB) members, and principals were conspicuously underrepresented amongst those who attended the public hearings. Those educators who were present, claimed to be proud members of SADTU, and tended to speak on behalf of the organisation, and not in their individual capacity.

We are reaching out to you, as fellow educators, to draw your attention to the possible impacts of the BELA Bill, should it be enacted into law.

This is a complex bill, touching on many different issues. We have encountered many educators stating that they were under the impression that the BELA Bill only affects the home education sector.

This is a concerning misunderstanding.

We have raised nine points below that would affect public/​government schools directly. We hope that this will give you a better understanding of what the government has planned in order for you to be able to make informed decisions.

1. Additional Administrative Duties

Do you know that you will be expected to perform additional administrative duties as educators and principals, as you’ll be expected to follow up on learner attendance and on anyone obstructing learners from coming to school in order to facilitate the Department of Basic Education (DBE) to impose penalties on these people.

More Details (Section 4A Insertion)

Insertion of section 4A in Act 84 of 1996

  1. The following section is hereby inserted in the South African Schools Act, 1996, after section 4: ‘‘Monitoring learner attendance 4A. (1) The educator, principal and governing body are responsible.

How do you feel about this additional administrative burden?

The fact that the onus rests on you as educators… is this justified and necessary?

2. Ministerial decision-making powers surrounding language policies

Do you know that the Minister will be able to make decisions to change the language policy of your school so as to ensure, what it termed as ‘fair and just transformation and social cohesion’?

The SGB would no longer have an input.

This will mean broad changes to your school’s language policy that will compel you to make resources available in all languages determined by the Minister.

More Details (Section 6 Amendment)

Amendment of Section 6 of Act 84 of 1996

  1. Section 6 of the South African Schools Act, 1996, is hereby amended — (a) by the substitution for subsection (2) of the following subsection: ‘‘(2) The governing body of a public school may, subject to subsection (13), determine the language policy of the school subject to the Constitution, this Act and any applicable provincial law: Provided that the language policy of a public school must be limited to one or more of the official languages of the Republic as provided in section 6(1) of the Constitution.’’

Do you feel that your school has the capacity to offer various languages of instruction (LOI) without compromising the present quality of learning enjoyed at your school?

3. Ministerial decision-making powers surrounding admissions policies

Similarly, do you know that the BELA BILL in its current proposed format will enable the Minister to make decisions to change the admission policy of your school and determine how many learners should be admitted? This could result in the Minister increasing the numbers of learners at your school, which implies that the size of classes will be determined by policies implemented by the Minister, rather than by the planning and provisions made by your School Governing Body.

More Details (Section 5 Amendment)

Amendment of Section 5 of Act 84 of 1996, as amended by section 2 of Act 50 of 2002

  1. Section 5 of the South African Schools Act, 1996, the Head of Department, after consultation with the governing body of the school, has the final authority, subject to subsection (9), to admit a learner to a public school; (b) the governing body must submit the admission policy of a public school and any amendment thereof to the Head of Department for approval; © the Head of Department may approve the admission policy of a public school or any amendment thereof, or may return it to the governing body with such recommendations as may be necessary in the circumstances, together with reasons for such recommendations.

Do you feel that the staff at your school will manage to absorb increased numbers of learners as determined by the Minister?

4. DBE intent to close small, rural schools

Do you know about the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE) intention to close down small, rural schools and merge the learners from these schools with schools they deem viable? Apart from the negative impact this will have on learners and, indeed, communities, this could result in an unsustainable impact on learner numbers in the so-called viable schools.

More Details (Section 33 Amendment)

Amendment of section 33 of the South African Schools Act, 1996 by Section 27

(4)(a) The Member of the Executive Council may, by notice in the Provincial Gazette, close a public school if, in the case of a primary school, 135 or fewer than 135 learners are registered at that school, and, in the case of a secondary school, 200 or fewer than 200 learners are registered at that school: Provided that the provisions of this subsection do not apply where the Member of the Executive Council has, before the commencement of the Basic Education Laws Amendment Act, 2022, acted in terms of subsection (2).

This is also outlined in the Schools Rationalisation and Rehabilitation Programme (SRRP) where is deals with the closure and merging of schools.

At the KZN Hearings the DBE announced their intention to close over 900 ‘non-viable’ schools in KZN by 2028 – citing the DBE’s constitutional responsibility to provide quality education to learners. The figure is apparently close 3,000 school nation-wide.

The intention is for the learners of those schools to be merged with so-called ‘viable’ schools.

It is alleged that educators will be redeployed to other schools. Uncertainty, however, exists around the jobs of support staff.

The DBE claims that the affected communities have already been engaged. Furthermore, the DBE says learners will be accommodated in so called viable schools which in turn, according to them, will be upgraded to increase their capacity.

Members of the public have raised concerns around the safety of young children having to rely on public transport to attend school. Questions have also been asked as to whether a strategic impact analysis study (SIAS) has been conducted around this.

Do you, in all honesty, believe that the closure of so many schools is in the absolute best interest of our children, particularly those living in remote, rural areas?

5. Code of Conduct

Do you know that the BELA Bill seeks to amend the code of conduct as well as make changes to the definition of “corporal punishment”?

Within the proposed definition, the list of serious offences is expanded and direction of how to deal with learners who do not comply with the school’s code of conduct is given.

This expands the definition of corporal punishment to include verbal and emotional abuse against learners. Although most educators welcome the abolishment of corporal punishment and support the elimination of punitive (and any form of abusive) treatment – we do not feel that this clause takes into account ways in which educators need more support in this area.

More Details (Amendments to Sections 8, 9 and 10)

The BELA Bill does not make any alternative suggestion as to how educators may deal with learners who exhibit challenging behaviour. One SADTU member suggested many teachers lacked sufficient knowledge to understand how learners with special needs (LSN) and neurodivergent learners needed a more lenient framework with which to assist both educators and learners with extreme behaviours and that they felt that the BELA Bill didn’t fully take into account the context in which educators needed to manage learner behaviour.

Teachers need additional training and professional development in order to acquire more effective strategies for classroom management. Teachers are not adequately empowered to handle more challenging behaviours.

Should the BELA Bill be passed in its current format, educators will be at risk of facing disciplinary action, including fines and/​or being imprisoned for up to six months.

Amendment of Section 8 of Act 84 of 1996, as amended by Section 4 of Act 50 of 2002, and Section 6 of Act 31 of 2007

  1. Section 8 of the South African Schools Act, 1996, is hereby amended— (a) by the substitution for subsection (1) of the following subsection: ‘‘(1) Subject to the Constitution, this Act and any applicable provincial law, a governing body of a public school must adopt a code of conduct for the learners after consultation with the learners, parents and educators of the school.’’

Amendment of Section 9 of Act 84 of 1996, as amended by Section 7 of Act 48 of 1999, Section 2 of Act 24 of 2005 and Section 7 of Act 15 of 2011.

  1. Section 9 of the South African Schools Act, 1996, is hereby amended by the substitution for subsection (1) of the following subsection:

    ‘‘(1) (a) The governing body may, on reasonable grounds and as a precautionary measure, suspend a learner who is suspected of serious misconduct from attending school, but may [only] enforce such suspension only after the learner has been granted a reasonable opportunity to make representations to it in relation to such suspension.

    (b) Serious misconduct by a learner is defined as—
    (i) physical assault of a learner, employee, or other person related to the school, with the intention to cause grievous bodily harm, or the imminent threat to commit such an act, while on school premises or during any school activity, or in any circumstance that could reasonably be connected to the school;
    (ii) any form of harassment, including sexual harrassment of a learner, employee or other person related to the school, including via electronic and social media;
    (iii) repeated offences related to bullying, or the imminent threat to commit such an act;
    (iv) the illegal possession of a drug or liquor;
    (v) the repeated disruption of the school programme, or the imminent threat to commit such an act;
    (vi) serious transgressions relating to any test, examination or examination paper;
    (vii) fraud;
    (viii) theft or any other dishonest act to the prejudice of another person;
    (ix) the possession of a dangerous object while on school premises, or during any school activity, or in any circumstance that could reasonably be connected to the school;
    (x) the possession or distribution of pornographic material;
    (xi) engaging in sexual activity on school premises or committing an act of sexual assault, or the imminent threat to commit such an act; and
    (xii) any other serious act contemplated in Schedule 1 to the Criminal Procedure Act, 1977 (Act No. 51 of 1977), that prejudices the constitutional rights of learners, employees or other persons related to the school.’’.

Amendment of Section 10 of Act 84 of 1996

  1. Section 10 of the South African Schools Act, 1996, is hereby amended by the substitution for subsections (1) and (2) of the following subsections: ‘‘(1) [No] Corporal punishment is abolished and no person may [administer] inflict or impose corporal punishment [at a school] to a learner at a school, during a school activity, or in a hostel accommodating learners of a school. (2) Any person who contravenes subsection (1) is guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a [sentence which could be imposed for assault] fine or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding 12 months, or to both a fine and such imprisonment.’’

Do you think that the current framework is fair and adequately addresses the practicality of learner management? What do you feel about facing disciplinary action like a fine, imprisonment of up six months (or both), if you implement classroom strategies that, by the expanded definition of corporal punishment, are punishable in the face of challenging learner behaviour?

6. Alcohol

Do you know that the BELA Bill will make allowance for the sale of alcohol under certain conditions, which is in conflict with our other national laws pertaining to the sale of alcohol in South Africa?

Given the high levels of alcohol and substance abuse in South Africa, this clause seems to be out of touch with the needs of communities to create safe spaces for learners.

Many at the hearings raised that fact that learners should not be confronted with the modelling of behaviours that do not foster the development of a positive value system in which learners can exercise self-control and restraint.

Furthermore, the sale of alcohol on school premises is not consistent with other laws that limit the sale of alcohol to children under the age of 18 years and within a radius of 100 meters of a school premise.

More Details (Amendment of Section 8A)

Amendment of Section 8A of Act 84 of 1996, as inserted by Section 7 of Act 31 of 2007

  1. Section 8A of the South African Schools Act, 1996, is hereby amended— (a) by the substitution for subsection (1) of the following subsection: ‘‘(1) (a) Unless authorised by the principal for legitimate educational purposes, no person may bring a dangerous object or [illegal] a drug onto school premises or have such dangerous object or drug in his or her possession on school premises or during any school activity. (b) No person may bring liquor onto public school premises, or have liquor in his or her possession, or consume or sell liquor on public school premises, or during any public school activity. © Notwithstanding the prohibition contemplated in paragraph (b)— (i) the Head of Department may, upon application from the governing body to supplement the resources of the school, permit the possession, consumption or sale of liquor during any school activity, whether it is held on or away from the school’s premises.

Do you feel it is wise for the DBE to make provision for the sale of alcohol on school premises?

7. Management of Pregnant Learners

Do you know that the management of pregnant learners will fall on the shoulders of the educators, and from what the BELA Bill proposes, this will be done without the parents’ consent nor knowledge if the learner is 12 years or older?

The DBE claims that this policy is aimed at ensuring that pregnant learners have access to education both during and after their pregnancy, and that the school and educators make accommodations to facilitate this. However, the vague language used in the proposed BELA Bill with regards to learner pregnancy relies on the HOD making further regulations without providing any scope nor substance as to these proposed regulations.

This is a fraught and complicated issue, as many are concerned that abortion falls within the scope of the Policy on the Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy in Schools.

More Details (Amendment of Section 61)

Amendment of Section 61 of Act 84 of 1996, as amended by Section 5 of Act 53 of 2000 and Section 9 of Act 50 of 2002

According to section 41: Section 61 of the South African Schools Act, 1996, is hereby amended by the insertion after paragraph (a) of the following: 

(aA) on the management of learner pregnancy; 

(b) by the addition of the following subsection, the existing section becoming subsection (1): ‘‘(2) The regulations contemplated in subsection (1) may provide that any person who contravenes a provision thereof or fails to comply therewith is guilty of an offence and liable, on conviction, to a fine or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months, or to both a fine and such imprisonment.’’.

If one reads the BELA Bill alongside the Bill of Health and the Policy on the Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy in Schools, it then implies that educators should refer learners to clinics for Sexual Reproductive Health (SRH) services, which include the prescription of contraceptives and referrals for abortions for learners from the age of 12, without parental consent.

As it currently stands, educators are compelled to advise learners according to the following protocols outlined in the policy on learner pregnancy management, educators must –

  • treat learners with absolute confidentiality

  • refer learners for medical treatment, and

  • treat learners according to these protocols or face penalties which include being fined and/​or being imprisoned for up until six months

This policy places learners who have been impregnated by educators at risk, because the other educators would effectively be silenced and be unable to report the sexual misconduct of their colleague.

Many of the SADTU members at the public hearings said that “educators are not nurses and are ill-equipped to provide medical advice to learners… we don’t have time to perform the role of a social worker… we don’t want our schools to be a maternity wing… It is very difficult to accommodate pregnant learners with the rest of the class – it is hard for them to keep up with their peers…”

Other speakers noted with irony, the vague language of the BELA Bill which provides that children of the age of 12 and up, who could not legally purchase a packet of cigarettes, nor alcohol, until after the age of 18, would be able to obtain abortions without their parents’ consent.

  • Do you think these are reasonable and fair expectations?

  • Are you comfortable with having to go behind a parent’s back regarding such matters?

  • Do you feel it’s okay that, if you don’t do so, you could face fines and/​or imprisonment of up to six months?

  • Do you really feel that educators should be responsible for the referral required due to pregnancy management, along with the support of the educational needs of pregnant learners, on top of their regular work load?

8. Appointment of Educators

Did you know that the BELA Bill contains very little direction regarding appointment of educators, especially those required for Special Focus Schools with LSN skills?

There is no concrete commitment provided for the expansion and development of special needs education. The only reference made is the fact that the Minister may appoint educators ‘as necessary’, as well as appoint those outside the school community in their capacity as specialists in their field.

Public Hearing Enquiries, Lack of Reference to LSN

Several speakers at the public hearings enquired about the importance of a concrete commitment from the DBE regarding the expansion and development of LSN education, especially in light of the fact that sign language is an official language, and that the DBE must therefore ensure that resources would be developed towards addressing this need.

There is no reference at all in the proposed Bill regarding learners with special needs, LSN education, or such-like, apart from a passing reference to sign language in Section 5 (b) (4), stating that South African Sign Language has the status of an official language for purposes of learning at a public school.

Do you, in your own estimation, believe that there is a need for more focus on educators trained to teach learners with special needs in order to ensure inclusivity?

9. Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE)

Did you know that it will be expected of all educators to teach the scripted Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) programme, despite religious or moral objection? This, again, is a complex issue, taking into account several laws, acts and regulations apart from the proposed BELA Bill in order to understand the full picture.

National Policy on the Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy in Schools

The national curriculum compels educators to teach scripted CSE lessons that are based on secular human rights-based policy that has been developed by international agencies such as the WHO, UN and UNICEF, amongst others.

CSE is also a stipulated requirement of the Policy on the Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy in Schools, and clause 41 stipulates that the Minister will regulate learner pregnancy. This then links the BELA Bill to this learner pregnancy policy which, thus, implies compliance with the requirement of the instruction of CSE. 

The DBE has made several claims that allude to the fact that funding of learning and teaching support materials (LTSM), Grade R Educators, Schools Nutrition Programmes, etc., as being dependent on BELA Bill compliance with the policies of these agencies. 

This is also consistent with media statements and introductory speeches made at the BELA Bill Public Hearings. 

The trend internationally, is that the CSE programme has an all-pervading reach in terms of multiple LTSM relating to many different subjects over and above the currently required Life Orientation (LO).

CSE normalises the LBGTQIA+ lifestyle in the hope that this will reduce discrimination and bullying in the school community and beyond. The advocacy of gender-neutral bathrooms to accommodate students wishing to express non-binary identity during the process of gender transitioning will naturally flow from the above is also being promoted.

Do you think that the majority of South African educators will support the inclusion of the CSE programme without the freedom to object to having to present lessons on CSE on the basis of moral or religious grounds?

Conclusion, and Vote in the Referendum

Should the above nine issues not raise our concerns, especially since we educators are primary stakeholders in education?

The provincial government claims to have notified schools and educators via their internal messaging system, yet daily we speak to educators who are utterly in the dark regarding the BELA Bill and any possible implications and impacts. In fact, educators were in the main unaware of the BELA Bill public hearings as well as of the BELA Bill itself.

Fortunately, there is a small chance that another round of public participation will be conducted in order to allow for more thorough consultation with schools, educators and parents. In the meantime though, we ask you to mobilise, get wise, get active and make your voice heard.

At the time of writing this letter, over 50,000 concerned South Africans had voiced their strong opposition to the BELA Bill by voting NO in the BELA Bill referendum on referendums.co.za.

Large numbers of votes against the BELA Bill are a clear indication of public sentiment and opinion and can be used in possible legal action or to pressure members of parliament.

So if, after reading this letter, you too have any concerns about this bill, please join us by voting securely and privately in the referendum, and share this information with friends, family and colleagues.

With warm regards,
a group of concerned fellow educators

Bonamy Parkin
PGCE-FET; NDip Visual Art and History of Art

Joanne de Waal
BEd.Hons; Learners with Special Needs

Ruth Woudstra
MA English Literature; MA Creative Writing; PGCE; PGDiP Journalism

Bye Bye BELA Bill – Vote NO, this Bill must GO!

The proposed Bill is the first major revision of the post-Apartheid education landscape, and will likely shape that landscape for the next 10 to 15 years.

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