South African legislators are considering a move that could provide homeschool advocates another chance to defeat harmful aspects of a sweeping education bill they’ve been battling for five years.
The Basic Education Laws Amendment (BELA) bill has been the focus of much deliberation since it was first drafted in 2017. It was introduced into the lower house of the South African parliament in January 2022.
The South African National Assembly is considering calling for select testimony on BELA after extending the window for public comment and receiving over 18,000 letters.
If passed, its effects on homeschooling would include:
- Lowering the age of compulsory education to the equivalent of kindergarten
- Introducing pre-registration home visits
- Requiring annual student assessments by “competent” individuals
- Empowering local officials to insist that homeschool curriculum and teaching methods reflect government-endorsed ideology and educational goals
Voters Make Their Voices Heard
The National Assembly presented the BELA bill for public comment from May to mid-June. A strong critical response prompted lawmakers to extend the comment period until August 15.
“According to an official at parliament,” said homeschooling father and advocate Bouwe van der Eems, “about 18,000 letters were received by the middle of July.”
During that time frame, Mike Donnelly, HSLDA Senior Counsel and Director of Global Outreach, submitted a letter highlighting South Africa’s commitments under international law and homeschooling’s success in the United States.
In his comments, Donnelly pointed out that South Africa has assented to international protocols including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Among the ideals affirmed in these documents is the “prior parental right to choose the type of education their children will receive.”
This right is based on the belief that parents know and love their children better than any government agency ever could, and that one way parents express this care is by directing the religious and moral education of their sons and daughters.
According to van der Eems, “this is an important argument, since the South African constitution states that courts must consider international law and may consider foreign law.”
Christopher Cordeiro, a consultant with the homeschool advocacy group Pestalozzi Trust, agreed with van der Eems and said he hopes that the National Assembly will invite Donnelly to elaborate on those written comments. He added that Donnelly’s report on how homeschooling has burgeoned in the United States is also helpful.
“Mike was able to demonstrate that more restrictive regulatory environments [in the US] have not produced better outcomes than more permissive ones, and that the overall trend in legislation has been from more to less restrictive measures,” Cordeiro stated. “We hope this will play a role in convincing parliament that a highly restrictive and costly regime is wasteful in the context of a developing country that is struggling to provide universal quality education.”
Another reason for concern over this bill is the influence it could have beyond South Africa. Van der Eems pointed out that other English-speaking African nations watch South Africa for legislative trends. Cordeiro, meanwhile, warned that the BELA bill could resonate in ways that might catch Americans by surprise.
“The influence of legislation and court cases in South Africa should not be seen as limited to Africa or underestimated on the global stage,” van der Eems said. “South Africa’s constitution is regarded as highly progressive. As the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg said, ‘I would not look to the US Constitution if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012. I might look at the constitution of South Africa.’”
Whether or not the National Assembly will agree to amend the BELA bill favorably remains an open question. Cordeiro said he hopes lawmakers ultimately transfer the homeschooling sections of the measure into a separate bill. Doing so, he added, would make it easier for voters to understand what lawmakers are proposing for both traditional education as well as homeschooling, and for advocates of each to propose much-needed reforms.
Van der Eems, on the other hand, said it’s unlikely the BELA bill will be changed in a way that is good for homeschooling. He did speculate as to whether the ebb and flow of politics might render the legislation moot.
“There is a realistic chance that the current government will not be in power after this election,” van der Eems said. If the measure is not enacted before then, he added, the new leaders “might not have the appetite to introduce the BELA bill again.”
Both men agreed that South Africa’s government needs to concentrate on more pressing issues than attempting to micromanage the less than one percent of the school-age population who homeschool.
“As a developing country,” said Cordeiro, “our education policy must focus primarily on issues of universal access to education, as well as social support, such as providing nutrition through the schooling system.”