A religious NGO, known as Organisasie vir Godsdienste-Onderrig en Demokrasie (OGOD/Organisation for Religious Teaching and Democracy), is currently seeking a court order against the department of basic education and public schools to prevent religious observances during school hours. The case dates back to 2014, where the organisation took to court two ministers and six public schools for advertising themselves as exclusively Christian.
While private institutions of learning are allowed to establish an exclusive religious ethos at their own expense, the South African National Policy on Education and Religion (SANPER) prohibits public schools from doing the same. According to SANPER, South Africa consists of a very diverse body, so “…no particular religious ethos should be dominant over and suppress others” and all religions are to be recognised and respected equally. This policy also stipulates that no public schools are allowed to discriminate or violate a student’s or teacher’s religious freedom by imposing adherence to one religion “… on a religiously diverse school population.”
I attended a former Model C public school that had a Christian ethos. Monday morning assemblies were compulsory for everyone, and we read scriptures and sang hymns. I spoke to Sylvester Maqanda (31) a security guard from Soweto (who is an atheist) and he had a similar schooling experience to mine. Christianity was the only accepted religion at his primary school.
“If schools cannot accommodate more than one religion then we should take out religion in our education system; it should be gone. With today’s constitutional law, everyone is allowed to choose what they want and which religion to affiliate themselves with. To me, this court case shows that South Africa does not consider other religions and that we should find ways of considering them or abolish religion from the [education] system.”
Zama Nqulunga, a 23-year-old quantity surveyor from Alexandra also learned about Christianity throughout her school career. However, Nquluna says she sees no problem with this. Nqulunga is a Christian and grew up in a Christian household.
“Maybe because I was never at a disadvantage with the focus on one religion, but I see no problem in schools focusing on one religion. Not that I’m saying it should stay that way, I also think the department of education should find means of incorporating different religious views in the [education] system, because religion is still important to people. Getting rid of it can never be a solution.”
Thabang Kubjana, a 27-year-old auditor from Pretoria, went to a Catholic high school. Kubjana isn’t Catholic, but she said she had no choice but to conform to the Catholic ethos during her school years. It didn’t bother her though. She felt schools enforced religion on pupils and called for schools to rather not touch on religion because it’s quite broad and sensitive.
“Schools have this thing of forcing kids into accepting a certain religion. I don’t think it is right for schools to focus on one religion, because diversity. Instead, I think it’s better for schools to change their policies on religion and not focus or preach about any because [religion] is a broad and sensitive topic. This is what the court case between the NGO and the education system says to me.”
Although my religious beliefs are more aligned towards Christianity, I do strongly feel that, because of our diverse population, finding means of ensuring that every religious group is equally represented or taught at schools is quite a reach. This court case is already an indication of how difficult it will be in finding solutions to fair and equal representation in religious education.
Many South Africans have come through a schooling system that gave precedence to Christianity of one form or the other. Given the diversity of the South African population, would it be best to remove religious observances from the education system?
Featured image via Flickr
*Editors’ note: This post has been edited to clarify the current state of the court case.