Language policing not on
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Fri Jul 8 12:34:09 UTC 2005
From: Mail and Guardian on-line
Language policing not on
06 July 2005 08:00
The Mikro Primary School case has generated astonishing levels of noise
and mud-slinging, ostensibly over language rights, in schools. But the
case is, surely, fundamentally about school governance and the laws
pertaining to that.
Last week the Supreme Court of Appeal upheld the Cape High Courts
judgement in February that the Mikro school governing body (SGB) had acted
lawfully in arriving at its language policy -- namely, instruction in
Afrikaans -- and in refusing admission to 21 English-speaking grade one
pupils. The school had resorted to court action against the Western Cape
education departments instruction that it enrol the pupils. Mikros case
was that its SGB had acted in accordance with school governance law.
The law in question is the South African Schools Act (Sasa), which details
the powers of SGBs, including their right to decide which language (or
languages) of instruction a school will offer.
Yet, the case has been racially and politically interpreted on all sides.
Western Cape education minister Cameron Dugmore joined an African National
Congress-organised toyi-toyi outside the Cape High Court in January.
This provoked Helen Zille, education spokesperson for the Democratic
Alliance, to say Dugmores attempt to force Mikro to accept the 21 children
was evidence of a party political assault by the ANC against medium
institutions [that] are required to sacrifice their language rights in the
interests of the ANCs definition of transformation, and part of a
nationwide harassment campaign against such schools.
Given our destructively racialised, and racist, language history, it is
not difficult to understand why this Cape Town primary schools case should
have elicited such strong feelings. But both the Cape High Court and now
the appeal court remind us that post-1994 legislation, in this case Sasa,
protects the rights of all language groups -- and that includes Afrikaans
The judgements from both courts clearly criticise the Western Cape
education departments attempt to interfere with the Mikro SGBs entirely
legal functioning. And it is worth recalling that the democratic powers
accorded to SGBs to determine so much of their schools functioning was one
of the great achievements of post-1994 education policy, after decades of
iron-fisted and grossly intrusive apartheid social engineering.
So it is with some qualms that I find myself reading the Mikro case not
solely in terms of language policy, but of school governance and
especially Minister of Education Naledi Pandors comments on SGBs and the
Schools Act in her May education budget address.
Under the subheading School governing bodies and language, she
acknowledged that the majority of SGBs set admissions policies, determine
language selection and set fees with dedication and commitment to
But she also said, entirely accurately, that some SGBs have made public
schools their personal property instead of promoting access,
democratisation and quality. She then made an undertaking that should have
drawn more analysis than it has so far: ... I shall initiate a review of
[Sasa] to identify ways in which [the Act] may be amended to respond to
our challenges of access and transformation.
Nothing sinister there, one might think -- and hope. But if the review of
Sasa results in curtailing the powers of SGBs and devolving some of them
to the state, we could be on a slippery slope, one leading directly to
apartheid-era centralised political control over schools.
Provincial education departments now constitute one of the most
problematic area s in education. Their record of overall implementation of
national policy is a constant source of despair.
One hopes that the Mikro case does not provide ammunition for those who
want to change legislation in a way that results in schools being deprived
of hard-won democratic rights of choice over their own identities and
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