Controversial basic education bill's processing delayed due to 'challenges' with public hearings

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Parliament had to postpone public hearings on the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill.
Parliament had to postpone public hearings on the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill.
Getty Images/ Witthaya Prasongsin
  • Parliament's public hearings on the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill is on hold in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
  • The Portfolio Committee on Basic Education and Parliament's support staff have been experiencing "some challenges" with the arrangements for the public meetings.
  • The DA complained that the hearings in Mpumalanga last weekend were "one fiasco after another".

Parliament's processing of the controversial Basic Education Laws Amendment (BELA) Bill hit the skids due to "some challenges" with the public hearings for the bill.

The BELA bill was first drafted in 2017, but the current iteration was introduced to Parliament last year.

It intends to amend the South African Schools Act (SASA) of 1996 and the Employment of Educators Act (EEA) of 1998, to align them with developments in education and to ensure that the right to basic education enshrined in the Constitution is realised.  

The bill has not been universally welcomed, with the proposed provision that would give provincial heads of education departments the power to make a final decision on a school's language and admissions policies and the watering down of the role of school governing bodies, being the main areas of concern from civil society groupings.

Concerned groups include AfriForum and the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (Fedsas).

The DA is also opposed to the bill.

Earlier this year, the Portfolio Committee on Basic Education, which is processing the bill, embarked on the required public hearings.

READ | Grade R could be compulsory in 2023 - here's how to choose a good school

Last week, the DA complained that the "ANC is trying to capture the public participation process" of the bill in Mpumalanga.

On Sunday, DA MP Baxolile Nodada said that committee chairperson, ANC MP Bongiwe Mbinqo-Gigaba, had informed committee members that last weekend's public hearings would proceed without the necessary support from Parliament's public education office, as they were short-staffed.

Nodada said:

This meant that the normal procedure for public hearings was not followed and that Parliament did not scout the communities the week before to identify and arrange suitable venues, nor did they communicate with the communities and stakeholders to educate them on the Bill and mobilise them to attend the hearings.

"Instead, the whole weekend's arrangements and communication were shouldered by the chair's team – and the attempts to present public sentiment in a particular light is clear as day.

"The weekend's hearings were one fiasco after another."

Indeed, the committee had to postpone its final hearings in Mpumalanga on Sunday after a miscommunication about the venues where the hearings would take place.

"In order to preserve and maintain the credibility of the public hearings on the Bill, the committee has decided to postpone the hearing and to convene it on a date and in a venue to be communicated later. Furthermore, the committee is conscious of the need to hold three sessions in Mpumalanga as it had done in all other provinces, as such, it has resolved to determine a new date for a further hearing in Mpumalanga," reads a statement from the committee.

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On Thursday, the committee again postponed public hearings, this time in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

"We took this decision primarily because of the need to ensure that our processes are thorough and adequate for this important legislation. Also, we value the public participation process and the inputs made during these hearings. This to us is a critical pillar of law-making and hence the need to iron out identified deficiencies, which include adequate public mobilisation and procurement of transport for participants," said Mbinqo-Gigaba, according to the statement.

The postponement is to allow Parliament's divisions supporting the public hearings "enough time to iron out some challenges in preparing for the hearings".

Mbinqo-Gigaba, however, said it didn't reflect on the hearings already undertaken, which the committee viewed as successful. She said the only challenges were encountered in Mpumalanga and that the committee would hold another hearing in that province. A date for the resumption of the hearings has not been set yet.

Nodada welcomed the postponement of the hearings in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

He said:

Parliament needs to ensure that the rescheduled public hearings are bulletproof – the ball cannot be dropped again on educating the public on the particulars of the Bill, advertising the hearings and mobilising the communities and stakeholders to attend them, and organising suitable venues and transportation. Unless due diligence is done, Parliament will compromise its constitutional obligation in this regard.

"The DA will continue to hold Parliament accountable and ensure that the hearings are more than just a box-ticking exercise. We highly value public input and have raised a number of concerns already. We will continue to speak out against any and all procedures and processes that seem to indicate a capture or purposeful derailment of the process."

Some of the key changes within the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill:
  • Making Grade R the new compulsory school starting age, as opposed to Grade 1, as is currently the case.
  • Compelling home-schooled learners to register for this type of schooling.
  • Criminalising parents who do not ensure their child or children are in school, with fines or jail time of up to 12 months.
  • Holding school governing bodies more accountable for disclosures of financial interests – including those related to their spouses and family members.
  • Prohibiting educators from conducting business with the state or being a director of public or private companies conducting business with the state.
  • Abolishing corporal punishment and initiation/hazing practices.
  • Allowing schools to sell alcohol outside of school hours.
  • Giving government department heads power over language policies and the curriculums a school must adopt.

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