Bela bill passed in parliament

Henry

The controversial Bela bill was accepted in the National Assembly (NA) today, with the FF Plus, DA and ACDP voting against.

This follows a months-long tug-of-war between the ANC and various interest groups who have taken their place alongside political parties in opposition to it.

A large group of AfriForum members joined several other organizations and parties in front of the parliament building in Cape Town on Thursday to object to the controversial Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill (also known as the Bela Bill).

According to Alana Bailey, AfriForum’s head of cultural affairs, this civil rights organization has been objecting since 2017 to aspects of the bill that will end parents’ say over the language and admissions policy of their children’s schools. AfriForum views the bill as a direct attack against Afrikaans education, which will have extremely negative consequences for quality education in Afrikaans single medium in particular, but ultimately also all South African schools.

“The minister of basic education, the deputy minister and ANC members of the portfolio committee who have already approved the bill make no secret of the fact that they want to put an end to Afrikaans schools – a move that in effect puts an end to mother tongue teaching in all languages ‚Äč‚Äčother than English will bring into the country,” explains Bailey. “In addition, the legislation could then empower them to fill existing schools, instead of fixing dysfunctional schools and building more schools – another step that will undermine quality education in the country.”

She adds that the ANC is clearly trying to steamroll the bill through all the processes to get it implemented before the 2024 election.

“This will center more power in the incompetent hands of the state and make communities’ involvement in their schools through democratically elected governing bodies meaningless. Currently, the governing bodies can finally decide on schools’ language and admissions policy, but this bill proposes that this power should henceforth rest with the provincial heads of education, in other words with political appointments. It is stated that it is necessary to prevent discrimination against learners, but this is blatant eye-rolling, as the existing legislation provides for the necessary steps to stop discrimination, should it occur.”

Bailey reminds that the bill must also be accepted by the Council of Provinces, before it can be presented to the president for signature. Only then can it be implemented.

“It is therefore necessary to take a visible stand each time at these steps to try to prevent us from having to go to legal action after implementation. Nevertheless, AfriForum is also preparing for legal action. Everyone who has to decide on this bill must realize that parts of its content are unconstitutional and have the potential to cause incalculable damage to education and mutual relations in the country.”

The battle is not over yet

Wynand Boshoff, FF Plus MP and chief spokesperson on basic education, says the process that must now follow is that provincial legislators must consider the bill as provincial governments will be responsible for its implementation.

“Because public hearings were held in only three places per province, provinces can decide to follow their own, more comprehensive process,” says Boshoff.

Only after provincial legislators have instructed their members of the National Council of Provinces (NRP), the body can vote on it.

Before the president signs the bill into law, several legal actions can be expected.

“The essential objection to this bill is that it breaks the settlement of 1994 – and moreover exposes its flaws. What education really needs is a multiplicity of cultural authorities that, among other things, have competence over education.”

Boshoff says such authorities must not only manage education, but also have a say over content, curriculum and examination. Then each school can decide for itself under which authority to stand.

“The path that South Africa is currently on is the only one that is possible in a unitary state: One of continuous conflict between groups that each want their way. This is precisely at the foundation of the unitary state: There can only be one authority and one policy. Self-determination, which includes, among other things, cultural autonomy, is a way to defuse this kind of conflict.”

However, Boshoff believes that the ANC has decided today to use the majority it has until the 2024 elections to walk the path of conflict. “Education deserves better than the ANC.”

‘Government is deliberately blind and deaf to public input on Bela Act’

“We consider the approval of this law as an attack on Afrikaans. It is clear that the government has a negative view of minority groups and is not interested in protecting these groups,” says Johnell van Vollenhoven, policy analyst from Solidarity’s Research Institute (SNI).

In an opinion poll that has just been completed by the SNI, almost all respondents are negative towards the Bela Act with up to 98% believing it will threaten Afrikaans.

A report on the opinion poll will be issued shortly.

“We cannot allow children to be handed over to unscrupulous politicians in this way. It is our duty not only to protect our language and the teaching of it and in it, but also our right to exist, to manage our schools and thus to act in the best interest of our children,” says Van Vollenhoven.

Johan Botha, deputy general secretary of Solidarity, says the protest action at parliament aimed to send a message to the government that the oppression of schools, and specifically Afrikaans schools, will not be tolerated. Solidarity will continue to exert pressure where it can.

“The next step to get the legislation approved is the debate and vote in the NRP. If the government is going to allow its political ideology to prevail here as well, and the law is subsequently ratified by the president, Solidarity is already ready for action. We will not hesitate to fight the hijacking of our schools all the way to the highest court,” says Botha.