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Whose values inform school traditions?

The education system has faced many obstacles over the past few years. From challenges regarding language as a medium of instruction and admission procedures that perpetuate discrimination and inequality, to codes of conduct that violate the fundamental principles of our Constitution.

These include attempts to “decolonise” the school curriculum, progress towards accommodating pupils with disabilities within the mainstream school system, and the movement towards the renaming of old schools that reflect oppressive value systems in a constitutional democracy.
All these incidents highlight the fact that discrimination and related intolerance remain pervasive within the school system. Ranging from overt acts of racism to more indirect forms of discrimination, these perpetuate prejudice and intolerance. Multiple incidents point to the fact that school codes of conduct continue to promote discriminatory rules and have failed to transform to fall in line with the values of the Constitution.

After 23 years of democracy, some pupils are still unable to learn in their mother tongue, while other schools perpetuate racial segregation by dividing classes along racial lines.
In 2008, the Constitutional Court handed down judgment in the matter of MEC for Education: KwaZulu-Natal v Pillay, in which the court engaged with vital questions about the nature of discrimination, religion and cultural expression in public schools. Ultimately, the court reaffirmed the need to provide for reasonable accommodation, and emphasised that religious and cultural diversity should not be viewed as “a parade of horribles, but a pageant of diversity that will enrich our schools and, in turn, our country”.
Yet, almost a decade later, many schools have failed to give effect to the essence of this judgment.
This year alone, the country has witnessed multiple incidents where pupils have been denied reasonable accommodation of cultural and religious diversity; where codes of conduct have reflected structural racism and transphobia; where overt acts of discrimination – including racism and xenophobia – have been trivialised or condoned; and where disproportionate and serious forms of punishment have been imposed on pupils for relatively minor infringements.

The country’s education system is undoubtedly experiencing the growing pains of transformation. Schools are mirrors of society, and ongoing instances of discrimination and related intolerance reflect the complex and systematic challenges facing society more broadly. Schools, like other social spaces, are struggling to confront deeply ingrained institutional cultures that have been built up over years.
A case in point is the high court judgment on June 28 on the promotion of religion in schools, where the court found that public schools that promote one religion over others was inconsistent with section 7 of the South African Schools Act.
Despite the judgment encouraging religious diversity at schools, it was largely criticised by members of the public and religious groups as an assault on religious freedom.

The reading of the Lord’s Prayer and scriptures from the Bible, religious symbolism and value statements are traditions that have been built up over years, and are regarded as sacrament and central to the character or ethos of some schools. But, increasingly, these traditions are being challenged as no longer reflective of the true values of diversity and equality embodied in the Constitution.
At its core, this debate is not about religious freedom.
Rather, the sensitivities are located within the fear of deconstructing deeply held traditions upon which many schools have defined themselves for years.

School governing bodies are empowered to develop their own value systems, rules and procedures. However, this must be done within the defined limits of the Constitution and, more importantly, must be done with critical reflection on the unspoken premises of the traditional norms and standards being promoted.
We are increasingly being forced to grapple with difficult questions regarding what our traditions and value systems mean to us, and also how they are perceived and experienced by others.
Our country ostensibly values the ideals of equality, dignity and diversity, and yet female pupils are still being prohibited from shaving their heads, while male pupils are not allowed to grow out their hair. Whose value systems are used to define whether an Afro, braids or side-cut are appropriate forms of expression compatible with the image a school wishes to portray?
Schools provide education through a formal curriculum, but they also perpetuate other value systems that then define perceptions and behaviours. Thus, the education system – both public and private – is perfectly positioned to break down stereotypes and prejudices, and to promote the true values of the Constitution and of a society based on equality, tolerance and diversity.
Aside from tolerance and reasonable accommodation, schools should be promoting social integration, and encouraging creativity and expression, rather than conformity and assimilation into dominant cultures.
Instead of a school system that merely accommodates or tolerates minority identities and beliefs, what is required here is a system that embraces a culture of diversity, dignity and equality as demanded by the founding values of our

The SA Human Rights Commission has previously called on the department of basic education to conduct audits of all school codes of conduct to ensure that they are aligned with the Constitution and, more specifically, with the Bill of
Rights. However, amending codes of conduct alone will not repair a fractured social fabric.
We need open and transparent dialogues – even on controversial issues – because it is only by confronting the past that we can begin to heal our divisions.
In the interim, school governing bodies should be more proactive in evaluating the codes of conduct and the practices of the schools they govern, and do so with appreciation of their obligations to promote the values of our Constitution and a commitment to the achievement of transformation in society.

Advocate Gaum is a commissioner of the SA Human Rights Commission responsible for the right to education

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