On 15 November 2022, I presented the SAIRR submission – drafted by Dr Anthea Jeffery – on the Basic Education Laws Amendment (BELA) Bill, to the National Assembly’s Portfolio Committee on Basic Education. 

The basic thrust of the presentation was more or less repeated in this interview with the Centre for Risk Analysis:

There are many problems with the contemporary education system that go beyond the failures of the African National Congress (ANC) government. These foundational problems go back centuries. But the BELA Bill stands to worsen the situation significantly.

Nobody understands the educational needs of children better than their own parents. This is a principle that must be steadfastly defended and respected, whereas the BELA Bill represents a significant step toward leaving it by the wayside.

South Africa’s public basic education system is one of the most  (if not the most) dysfunctional in the world. Taking more power away from parents and placing that power in this system is misguided. 

But the BELA Bill is not only a South African problem. 

Parental authority is being questioned elsewhere as well. The Miami Herald certainly has some concerns about the principle, notwithstanding Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s particular implementation of it. The National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union in the United States, also argues that ‘educators … know better than anyone what [students] need to learn and to thrive.’

In America, the tension is largely between parents and ‘conservative’ politicians on the one hand, and educators and ‘progressive’ politicians on the other. What the BELA Bill shows us in the South African context is that we have parents and educators on the one hand, and government on the other.

BELA Bill in essence

The BELA Bill, in addition to other harmful provisions, does three things that stand out. 

It allows provincial education authorities to override the admission and language policy decisions of individual school governing bodies – which are comprised of parents and teachers – if the province believes it would be in the interests of the ‘broader community’.

It signals that provincial authorities will in future procure education materials on behalf of schools that are presently allowed to – and have the capacity to – do it themselves.

It adds significant burdens to homeschooling that, in effect, put homeschoolers back into the very public education system they have attempted to flee. It does this by empowering provincial ministers to regulate the ‘registration’ and ‘administration’ of homeschooling as they will, forcing parents to hire ‘assessors’ annually (at own expense) to ensure children are making progress, and allowing government to refuse registration of homeschoolers if an official is not ‘satisfied’ that it is in the best interests of the child.

Phantom of discrimination

The BELA Bill’s changes to governing bodies’ final authority over language and admission policy is justified in large part as an ostensible response to (implicitly racial) ‘discrimination’ suffered by pupils at a small handful of schools. However, in the most prominent cases that went to court, where provincial authorities attempted to intervene in this manner, no discrimination was found, and the authorities lost those cases.

This is not to say there is no discrimination taking place; only that the BELA Bill, its accompanying memorandum, and the poorly conceived socio-economic impact assessment on the proposed legislation, do not cite evidence of it. Where actual racism does take place, especially when it relates to minors, swift and uncompromising action must be taken against the guilty party. 

That is not what the BELA Bill is about.

Effectively, what is happening is that education authorities, in the midst of the self-imposed collapse of the public education system, are trying to accommodate more and more pupils in a dwindling number of high-quality schools. 

Many of these high-quality schools happen to be Afrikaans single-medium schools. It stands to reason that households who do not agree to a school’s policies – be it its disciplinary code, its medium of instruction, or its operating hours – do not qualify to have their children attend those schools. This is not ‘discrimination’ in the sense contemplated by social activists in the education department, but an ordinary phenomenon in human interaction.

The impact assessment also ignores the fact, which former Gauteng MEC for Education Panyaza Lesufi pointed out, that the vast majority – 80% – of students in model C schools are black. (These are fee-charging schools where parental involvement is prized.) 

The racial rhetoric and controversies that spring up in our schools, often with the help of politicians, are unhelpful and unproductive. We must remember that South Africa is in fact a very interracially healthy society, certainly more so than is often expressed in the media. 

A representative survey conducted by the Institute of Race Relations in 2022 shows that only a minority of South Africans, of every race, have experienced racism personally over the last five years. Only 33% of black, 35% of coloured, 40% of Indian, and 46% of white respondents to the survey indicated that they had personally experienced racism. 

Furthermore, 73% of black, 86% of coloured, 83% of Indian, and 89% of white respondents answered that they believed that the different races of South Africa need each other for everyone to progress.

The survey also shows that 61% of black, 63% of coloured, 80% of Indian, and 76% of white respondents believe the incessant talk of racism and discrimination in political circles is about trying to find a scapegoat for political failures, and not really about racism. 

This is simply to say that on the street, in the workplace, and certainly in the classroom, South Africans get along just fine across racial boundaries. The impact assessment’s offhand reference to discrimination, and the unfortunate talk of discrimination by education authorities when they try to justify interventions like the BELA Bill, are out of touch with reality. 

There is only a handful of single-medium Afrikaans schools left in South Africa – only 5.5%, 1,260 out of 23,000 schools. Even if all these schools were forced to become dual medium or single medium English schools, that would make little difference to the millions of pupils denied decent education.

In their zeal to redistribute high-quality education, rather than expand the supply of high-quality education, the education authorities necessarily have to find a scapegoat like ‘discrimination’ to justify the destructive and counterproductive centralisation contemplated in the BELA Bill.

The real problem

Discrimination and a lack of government interference are, then, not the real problems in South Africa’s dismal public education system. The submission by the Institute of Race Relations provides an overview of the real issues to be tackled.

According to the Centre for Risk Analysis, 3,785 public schools were closed between 2000 and 2020, even though the number of pupils went up over the same period from 11.6 million to 12.5 million.

Only 48% of 2010 first graders made it to matric. 80% of fourth graders cannot read for meaning. 60% of fifth graders cannot do simple subtraction.

The World Economic Forum’s 2017/2018 Global Competitiveness Index ranked South African schooling as one of the very worst in the world, performing worse than poorer countries. We rank ninth worst in maths/science, and among the top-30 worst in general.

Government itself in a 2018 report found that only five out of 22 primary school teachers can identify the main idea in a simple paragraph.

The overzealous lockdown of 2020/21 caused immense disruption in the schooling timetable, costing countless hours in learning time.

With all this in mind, South Africa spends 6.7% (19.9% of budgeted expenditure) of its gross domestic product on education. That is more than other developed and emerging markets. 

There is, in other words, no good reason why government should be failing to provide decent basic education with all these resources. 

The taxpayer has gone, and is going, above and beyond what is reasonable to provide government with all the resources it needs to fix the dysfunctional education dispensation. The BELA Bill, unfortunately, is not part of the solution, and will make the problem significantly worse by adding more centralisation. Centralisation stands to bring even more of South Africa’s education – those few pockets of quality – into the dysfunctional regime of government.

That government seeks to undermine well-performing schools and victimise homeschoolers to paper over its own inadequacies is perverse.


As the Constitutional Court explained in the My Vote Counts case in 2015, the principle of subsidiarity is part of South Africa’s constitutional law. It explained the principle succinctly as follows: 

Subsidiarity denotes a hierarchical ordering of institutions, of norms, of principles, or of remedies, and signifies that the central institution, or higher norm, should be invoked only where the more local institution, or concrete norm, or detailed principle or remedy, does not avail.”

This simply means that decentralising power as close as possible to the relevant constituency is the best and preferred option of constitutionalism. 

Now, in a constitutional system that has subsidiarity as a primary value, moving decision-making authority away from those closest to the ground is by definition regression, not progress. Centralisation away from the local or the particular, while it may not be strictly unconstitutional, is certainly out of step with the spirit of constitutionalism.

The BELA Bill quite explicitly seeks to centralise admission and language policies, procurement, and even, quite inappropriately, homeschooling, in the hands of education authorities, thereby taking authority away from parents. 

It is inappropriate for the State to be taking this kind of action without first having addressed the dismal state of its own educational initiatives. Vesting more power in the hands of those who have failed to substantially raise the quality of public education puts the cart before the horse.

Solutions to the current education problem

As alluded to earlier, I believe there are certain foundational problems in how society has gone about schooling for the past few centuries, but these will not soon be resolved. There are, however, solutions to the current predicament as far as South Africa is concerned.

A first and most basic solution is to abandon existing bad policy. That includes proposals like the BELA Bill, but also concepts like the ‘school feeder zone’. Households should be able to apply to any school they desire, provided they comply with the governing body’s policies. Adopting a more adversarial stance toward the teachers’ unions might also be called for.

A second solution is to respect the principle of subsidiarity. This means recognising the legitimate authority of parents, whether as parents per se or as participants in governing bodies. Parents know what is best for their children, and school governing bodies know what is best for their schools.

A third solution is to introduce a ‘voucher’-based system. 

In such a system, low-income households would receive a government grant that is to be utilised for educational purposes, but with no other strings attached. This would allow parents to take their children to any school they desire, public or private, local or at a distance. 

This grant must be taken from the existing (huge) budget of the basic education department, and not add to it.

The schools, of course, would still have their own admission or language requirements, but the voucher system would introduce so much competition between schools for the new market of families with vouchers that irrational, exclusionary practices would quickly fall away. There will still be exclusion to the extent that not everyone speaks the same language or adheres to the same religion, but overall inclusion of children in quality education would likely increase substantially under a voucher system.

By giving parents an education voucher and allowing them to choose where and how to spend it, parental authority is strengthened, not weakened as under the BELA Bill.

A fourth solution is for government to stop trying to redistribute the small quantity of existing high-quality education, and rather work toward the opening of more schools with highly-trained staff.

The voucher system could serve a dual purpose in this respect. 

It would be an effective incentive to ensure that schools try to increase their quality so as to attract more custom. In the process, more entrepreneurs will enter the basic education space. As these entrepreneurs will understand the voucher system, they will not charge exorbitant prices, since their purpose is precisely to attract families with vouchers. At the same time, they will have to offer a better-quality service than other local private or public schools. 

In this respect vouchers represent a race to the bottom as far as affordability is concerned, and a race to the top in the quality of the service.

Public schools can also benefit, as they, too, must compete for additional funding via the vouchers held by parents. This will result in these schools appointing motivated and qualified teachers, or risk being closed down. In this respect, government should link its continued funding of specific schools to whether parents voluntarily decide to send their kids to those schools.

Whatever the solution, it must necessarily involve respecting and entrenching the authority of parents to decide on the education of their children.

[Photo: Sydelle Willow Smith for The Guardian]

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Martin van Staden is the Head of Policy at the Free Market Foundation and former Deputy Head of Policy Research at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). Martin also serves as the Editor of the IRR’s History Project and its Race Law Project, and is an advisor to the Free Speech Union SA. He is pursuing a doctorate in law at the University of Pretoria. For more information visit www.martinvanstaden.com.