Child Protection Week 2022 has come and gone, overlapping with the start of Youth Month. Both periods are a time for reflecting on the health, safety and well-being of learners in South Africa. It is also a time to sound a warning about the Basic Education Laws Amendment (BELA) Bill of 2021, specifically with respect to the clauses relating to the issue of liquor in schools.
The Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance in SA (SAAPA SA) has noted with concern the inclusion in the BELA Bill of a recommendation that liquor be allowed on school premises, and at school functions on and off school premises, for purposes of fund-raising. This is an issue of concern because of the multiple risks this poses to learners at schools.
We want to focus on two aspects of child protection – the protection of the rights of children in general and the protection of children from harm, which is a subset of the protection of children’s rights.
SAAPA SA believes the liquor clauses in the BELA Bill are evidence of a failure on both fronts.
Section 28 of the Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights and says in subsections 1(c) and 1(d) that every child has the right to basic nutrition, shelter, basic health care services and social services; and the right to be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse or degradation.
Section 29 of the Constitution, also part of the Bill of Rights, says in subsection (1)(a) that everyone has the right to a basic education.
If we put the two together, it is reasonable so suggest that the section 29 basic education offered to children must also take into account section 28, especially subsection (d), which promotes the protection of children from maltreatment, neglect, abuse or degradation. However, it is clear from everything we hear during Child Protection Week every year – from government and civil society – that we as a country are failing to provide this protection, and that the harmful use of alcohol by those around them – adults in particular – denies children the rights enshrined in 28(1)(c) and (d).
Furthermore, the 29(1)(a) right to basic education surely implies that adequate resources must be made available in order for that right to be realised – and that the type of basic education offered must take into account subsections 28(1)(c) and (d).
Instead, we have schools which are inadequately funded – with consequences ranging from a lack of qualified teachers to learners being taught in broken-down classrooms and having to use pit toilets to relieve themselves. And now the Minister and the Department of Basic Education suggest that a way of getting around this is to legitimise the use of liquor to raise funds for schools. But the same Minister and Department responded to the problem of liquor in schools by inserting a section in the 2015 version of
the current BELA Bill saying that liquor, as with illegal drugs and dangerous weapons before them, must be banned from school premises.
How many teacher cohorts and School Governing Bodies (SGBs), which are made up of the parents of learners, would willingly choose to use liquor to raise funds if they had enough resources for their school from government or other sources? This question is particularly relevant in light of the fact that – according to figures in the World Health Organisation (WHO) Global report on alcohol and health (2018) that are endorsed by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and other respected public health practitioners and researchers in South Africa – only 31% of people aged 15 and above in the country actually use alcohol.
So why is government considering passing legislation allowing the presence in schools of a substance that the majority of people do not use or endorse, very often because of their beliefs or because they recognise the risks associated with it? After all, people are entrusting schools with the safety and well- being of their children for five to eight hours a day, five days a week, throughout most of each year. If most people in the country choose not to have alcohol in their lives, they would surely not choose voluntarily to endorse the use of liquor to raise funds for their children’s schools, but only do as as an act of desperation in the absence of adequate resources.
Everyone knows, too, that children are unwitting victims of the harmful use of alcohol. They are vulnerable to physical and psychological abuse, deprivation of adequate sustenance, and a lack of adequate education, all as a consequence of the harmful use of alcohol in their homes and their communities. It is said that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, but the ‘villages’ children live in – whether urban or rural, towns or cities, large or small, formal or informal – are failing them. Amongst those failing them are teachers and other staff who may themselves already have a problem with alcohol. If they cannot be trusted to put the best interests of learners first when the use of liquor on school premises is frowned upon (but not necessarily unlawful), how can they be trusted to do so if liquor use becomes a legitimate part of school activities?
Learners already encounter harm within their communities, very often on their way to and from school, passing large numbers of liquor outlets, some of which are a stone’s throw from their schools, in defiance of legislation in provinces such as Gauteng which says that there should be no liquor licences within 500m of an educational institution.
In Northern Cape, during recent hearings by the Portfolio Committee on the Children’s Amendment Bill, parents and community members complained, unprompted, of the already existing risks for learners associated with alcohol in the community, and pleaded for a solution. Is the ‘solution’ for Basic Education, a sister department that should be equally concerned about the welfare of children, to bring liquor and all its attendant problems onto school premises and into school activities?
The Minister of Basic Education responded to the outcry that followed initial media reports on the proposed new legislation by saying that ‘alcohol has a place in society’. That may be so, but it doesn’t follow that it has a ‘place’ in schools.
The Portfolio Committee on Basic Education has called for written and oral submissions on the Bill which are due by 15 June 2022. It is a comprehensive Bill, proposing changes to multiple laws and addressing a wide range of critical educational issues. SAAPA SA is concerned that not enough has been done to ensure that everyone in the country is aware of the Bill and of their right to comment on it as individuals and as organisations. SAAPA SA also believes that the initial 30 days allowed for comment is too short and has asked the Portfolio Committee to extend the due date to allow for more public participation.
More also needs to be done by government, with the help of civil society, to get the message out into every corner of the country.
SAAPA SA is encouraging as many people and organisations as possible to participate in this critical process, the outcome of which will affect almost every family in the country, now and going forward into the future.
We want also to emphasise that we are not rejecting the Bill in its entirety – we are not competent to do that as we are not directly involved in education policy in general. Our concern is restricted to the liquor sections of the Bill and we are calling for a return to the proposal in the 2015 version of the Bill which called for liquor to be banned on school premises, along with ‘illegal drugs’ and ‘dangerous weapons’, which were first prohibited in the BELA Act of 2007. However, we do concede that, in some schools, there may be adults – teachers, admin staff, security personnel or caretakers – living on the premises and, in such instances, it is reasonable to allow them to have alcohol in their private living quarters, subject to strict conditions.
Furthermore, we want to make clear that we accept that the legislation is not suggesting that learners be allowed access to alcohol – though we are not sure how schools will deal with the problem of 18 year-old learners who will likely claim their legitimate right to drink alcohol on school premises and at school activities, given that they have reached the national age at which liquor can be bought and consumed legally. We have noted the ‘safeguards’ that are supposed to protect learners from exposure to the harmful use of alcohol but, as explained above, we do not believe that these will be adequate or even enforced.
Furthermore, we are opposed to the further ‘normalisation’ of alcohol use in the eyes of learners who are already conditioned to believe that, at the age of 18, they should want to begin using alcohol as a ‘normal’ part of their lives. This ‘normalisation’ is currently happening through advertising and peer pressure – it doesn’t need to be reinforced even further by bringing alcohol into the school environment.
The position of SAAPA SA and its 58 civil society Alliance Partners is clear – alcohol has no place in our schools! – and we call on learners, parents, teachers and other school staff, as well as community members generally, to voice their opposition, through whatever means possible, to the liquor clauses in the Bill that will legitimise the use of alcohol on school premises and during school activities.
Members of the public can show their support for this campaign by wearing a blue ribbon on their chests or their arms, or by flying blue ribbons in their homes, workplaces and schools and from their vehicles.
They can read the BELA Bill and related documents at https://pmg.org.za/bill/1055/. They can write to Parliament to say they don’t want alcohol in schools – email@example.com– or send written objections by 15 June addressed to Ms B P Mbinqo-Gigaba, Chairperson, Portfolio Committee on Basic Education, Parliament, Cape Town and emailed, for the attention of Portfolio Committee Secretary Llewellyn Brown, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information:
Maurice Smithers, Executive Director: email@example.com 082 373 7705