Category Archives: Education

Religion at South African universities

It appears that not only South African schools are willing to ignore the National Policy on Religion and Education (pdf). As previously observed, certain schools routinely violate the requirement that religious instruction needs to focus on religion in general – allowing for freedom of belief by not requiring that students are exposed to only one religion, nor requiring them to accept one religion’s view regarding morality to take precedence over others.

Students enrolled for the B.Ed (Early Childhood Development and Foundation Phase) at the University of Pretoria are prescribed a textbook titled Addressing barriers to learning – a South African perspective, edited by Emmerentia Landsberg and published by Van Schaik (2nd edition, 2011). In the chapter entitled ‘Socio-economic barriers to learning in contemporary society’ by Erna Prinsloo, we read the following (pp. 36-37):

Normative development is initiated and established within the family context. Parents/caregivers are responsible for guiding children towards acceptance of religion and religious principles. Only in a personal relationship with a higher Being do children truly learn that there are lasting consequences for their actions. In the collective and mutual relationships with parents and God, children can be supported to experience love and safety and to accept responsibility for the way in which they live and learn. In the absence of such relationships and religious principles it becomes extremely difficult to teach children the value of discipline, self-discipline and consideration of the self and others. Where parents and caregivers abandon religion and religious principles and live a life of self-gratification with meeting one’s own needs as only principle, children and youth’s development towards a positive value system and eventual self-actualisation will be severely impeded.

Besides the contradiction entailed by “only in a personal relationship with a higher Being” and “in the absence of such … religious principles it becomes extremely difficult“, neither of these claims are true – and both of them present the viewpoint that without religion, your child is basically doomed to psychopathy of one form or another. While most of the University of Pretoria’s policies are hidden on a password-protected Intranet, we can read the following on the section of their website devoted to “Education Principles” (emphasis added):

  • Nurturing complexity and critical thinking (deep knowledge): Teaching should promote the use of higher-order thinking skills, e.g. the ability to engage actively and critically with ideas and current debates, synthesize, reflect on learning and apply principles to new problems and situations (the transfer of learning). It should develop analytical problem-solving skills; encourage students to think creatively and holistically; develop intellectual and cultural curiosity; encourage students to challenge assumptions, existing knowledge and beliefs, and to embrace new thinking.
  • Respecting diversity: Teaching acknowledges and actively engages diverse values, beliefs, talents, backgrounds, thinking and learning preferences, needs (including special needs), goals and educational experiences.
If we take them at their word, it seems entirely inappropriate – on UP’s own standards, regardless of the National Policy – that a textbook which teaches that God is necessary for self-actualisation, compassion and so forth be prescribed to students. Furthermore, the home page of the Department of Biblical & Religious Studies seems aware of their responsibilities in terms of the Policy, as we can read there that:

In accordance with the requirements of the new National Curriculum Policy on Education for religious education to focus on the general phenomenon of religion and not on a specific religion only, the name of the subject Biblical and Religious Studies changed to Religion Studies (code: REL) in 2006. Contents of the course now focus not only on the Bible, but also on various other world religions, without alienating our traditional students from the subject.

This doesn’t go quite far enough, of course, in that Religious Studies should also address worldviews that reject religion, or are free of religion. It would however be understandable if UP’s target market included few who might be interested in those topics, and the Religious Studies Department has at least (apparently) ceased to offer instruction which privileges the Christian religion. The Faculty of Education has no such excuses available to it. Even though the CAPS (Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement) don’t go far enough in eliminating religious bias from primary education (what these UP students are presumably learning towards offering), they at least don’t privilege a monotheistic – probably Christian – “God” as this textbook does.

We can only hope that this is merely an oversight, and that this textbook will either be revised for next year, or not prescribed at all. Anyone who is involved with any public education institution in South Africa should read and pass the Policy on, and hold your institutions to account when they violate its principles. The policy itself makes clear that “the spirit of the policy, which is to embrace the religious diversity of South Africa, must also be applied at other levels of the education system” – even though it’s applied inconsistently in schools, it’s not only for schools but also for universities. Including the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Education.

P.S. If you have children at a South African school and can read Afrikaans, Hans Pietersen’s book Die Vrese van Ons Vaders deals explicitly, and critically, with religion education in South African (Afrikaans) schools.

Bill of Responsibilities

Note: this is an edited version of a column for The Daily Maverick

It has been a month since the department of education, LeadSA and the National Religious Leaders’ Forum launched their Bill of Responsibilities. Some criticisms of the bill were forthcoming from Ivo Vegter, Khadija Patel and myself (herehere and here). We had concerns regarding various aspects of the Bill, ranging from whether such a bill was necessary at all, to the appropriate role of the state in relation to such a bill.

One of the criticisms levelled at those who expressed opposition to the Bill was that “we need to do something”, with Yusuf Abramjee of LeadSA going so far as to deride “armchair critics” (Facebook link) who (according to his caricature, at least) do little but carp from the sidelines.

This characterisation is untrue, and unfair, as there are various ways of expressing concern regarding the state of South African society, and working towards its betterment. If parts of civil society are of the view that a particular measure – such as the Bill of Responsibilities – is counterproductive for what they imagine to be a healthy South African society, it does little good to attack their motives and character, rather than the substance of the critique.

This is not to say that a bill of responsibilities is necessarily counterproductive to goals such as fostering a healthy society – my concerns addressed one specific Bill, rather than the idea of such a bill in general. And while it is true that many of the salient details such a bill might include are already embedded in the spirit of the South African Constitution, the Bill of Rights is mainly a document of the role of the State in protecting the rights of citizens.

In addition to that – and particularly, now that LeadSA have offered such a document – it could be useful to remind ourselves of what responsibilities we as citizens have, if we are to secure and build on the sacrifices and efforts entailed in our being able to enjoy the privileges of living in a democratic and (mostly) free society.

I’ve therefore been giving some thought to what such a document should look like, bearing in mind the criticisms of the existing document made by myself and others. What you see below, then, is an alternate Bill of Responsibilities, intended for freedom-loving South Africans who also desire a healthy future for this country, but who think that this can be achieved without an excess of paternalism, and without intruding on the liberties secured in our Constitution.

Comments and suggestions for revision are welcome, although it should be born in mind that moral prescriptivism and other forms of paternalism run contrary to the spirit of this suggested bill, and will thus not only be difficult to accommodate, but will also be unlikely to meet with any sympathy. An underlying premise running through the document is that of a commitment to individual liberty, which means that if you are of the view that other values are more foundational, we’re unlikely to agree on much.

Also, while LeadSA’s bill was explicitly aimed at the youth of South Africa, the bill presented below is written for adults. Once the document is revised (and potential feedback incorporated), I hope to draft a simplified version that is more suited to South Africa’s youth.

A Bill of Responsibilities for the citizens of South Africa


I accept that the rights and freedoms enjoyed by South Africans will sometimes come under threat, and that they require constant and vigilant protection if we are to ensure their survival. Furthermore, I accept that if I care to protect these rights and freedoms, I should be conscious of the role I might play in reinforcing or undermining them.

I accept that the rights enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa lay a strong foundation for a country that is free, and in which all of its people are equal. I also accept that the Bill of Rights lays out unconditional rights for the all citizens of South Africa, and that the primary responsibility for the protection of those rights rests with the state.

I accept that while any legal responsibilities I have to my fellow citizens are codified in statutory law, I can nevertheless impact on those around me in positive and negative ways, regardless of the legal status of my actions.

On enlightened self-interest

1. To recognise that actions have consequences, and that other people are often as committed to their interests, and as convinced of their point(s) of view, as you are to yours.
2. To recognise that no citizen is by nature better than any other, and that any preferential treatment for one citizen, or a group of citizens, over others requires impartial justification.
3. To recognise that choices are made inside a legal framework, where what you do might result in repercussions if that action illegitimately defeats the interests of others.
4. To recognise that you live inside a social framework where you define yourself, and therefore people’s expectations of you, based on your words and actions. Our reputations, and the amount of trust others place in us, are informed by the information we have provided about ourselves.
5. To recognise that our behaviour is not guided and limited by the law alone. We make promises and develop relationships, both of which result in other people having legitimate expectations as to our behaviour.

On law, social interaction and public policy

6. To recognise that even where actions might not be illegal, they can nevertheless cause others to lose respect for you. Your failure to look after the interests or possessions of others could result in decreasing their desires to contribute to your needs or defend your interests.
7. To recognise that when you abuse any power you might hold over others, you assume that your interests are more important than theirs. People who are abused in this fashion are justified in being angry and resentful at this treatment, and could be expected to lose respect for you.
8. To recognise that when we find ourselves in positions which involve representing the interests of others, if we fail to take those interests into account, we are betraying their trust, and breaking a promise.
9. To hold Government to account for meeting the legitimate expectations of citizens, through measures such as voting, legal protest action, and persuading fellow citizens of their role in contributing to holding Government accountable.
10. To recognise that that your choices can impact on the welfare of others, and that altruism from others cannot be assumed. However, showing kindness and respect for others is usually rewarded by them treating you in the same way. If you don’t contribute to the welfare of your fellow citizens, you have no reasonable expectation that they contribute to yours.

On thought and speech

11. To recognise that your knowledge is certainly incomplete, and that a dogmatic insistence on the superiority of your viewpoint is rarely justified.
12. To acknowledge that because of this, you should try to seek out as much information as you can, and assess that information as impartially as you can, before thinking that you know the answer to a question.
13. And furthermore, that because we may have access to different information, and assess that information in different ways, that others have the right to criticise your point of view.
14. To recognise that if your primary commitment is to reaching justified points of view, you should welcome serious critical interrogation of your arguments even when it might be uncomfortable to have your views challenged.
15. To understand that fair criticism should be understood as relating to the arguments you have presented, rather than as an attack on your personal value as a citizen.
16. To recognise that if your primary commitments do not include reaching justified points of view, others have no responsibility to take your point of view seriously.

On patriotism and the future of South Africa

17. South Africa’s Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights, charts a future in which all citizens are free to determine and express their own values, except where those values conflict with the limitations defined in the Constitution. Citizens should expect the state to ‘respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights in the Bill of Rights’. SA Constitution, 7(2).
18. Supporting your country entails obeying all demands of law, and the instructions of those who are delegated to enforce it.
19. However, we should remember that laws can be unjust or unreasonable, and that citizens are entitled to question or challenge applicable laws through any legal means available to them.
20. In challenging the decisions or actions of the state, or any entity associated with the state, citizens should remember that any pressure exerted in an attempt to silence such challenges is a violation of their rights to freedom of thought and expression.

Quacks like Patrick Holdford find receptive audiences in South Africa

Patrick Holford is one of the many nutritionists, doctors or specialists of one form or another who make a living by selling false or misleading promises. Sometimes, they even endorse harmful remedies, or harmful avoidance of effective remedies, as is the case with Holford’s association with HIV denialism (and Scientology). Why does a national chain of pharmacies endorse this quackery? Read more at Synapses.


SA women more likely to be raped than to learn how to read?

Tom Moultrie’s Sad facts – occasional musings on the abuse of statistics

I was alerted to this statistical horror by a friend who found it on the Guardian’s website; the screengrab above shows the original source cited by the Guardian. Nowhere on oneinnine’s website is evidence marshalled to support their contention.

“In South Africa a woman is more likely to be raped than learn how to read”. Say what?

A micro-nanosecond’s consideration should have you scratching your head in trying to interpret this “fact”. Continue reading SA women more likely to be raped than to learn how to read?

Religion education in SA schools

The topic of religion education in South African public schools has recently been quite a hot issue – mostly in the Afrikaans papers – following Prof. George Claassen’s article about the topic on his blog and follow-up radio interviews and the like. To put it quite plainly, certain schools are clearly in violation of the policy – and we have to date heard nothing from the Department of Basic Education which indicates that they give a hoot. Despite initially suggesting that legal action may be called for against the offending schools, Prof. Claassen has now decided to withdraw from the debate following numerous abusive and threatening calls and emails – but this issue should not be allowed to quietly go away. If you have a child enrolled at a public school in South Africa, and are concerned about them being taught in an explicitly ideological fashion – or being placed under any sort of pressure to conform to a particular world-view – you should familiarise yourself with the National religion policy, salient details of which are presented below. Continue reading Religion education in SA schools

Fundamentalist Christian Legal Challenge to Canadian Secular Education Fails

Quebec, Canada
As was reported in the National Post, the Canadian policy of secular education in schools – which requires that children are taught facts about all the major religions of the world – was taken to court by some parents in Drummondville on the basis that the new curriculum “was undermining their efforts to instill Christian faith in their children”.

Unlike South African policy (which also requires education on all major religions to be provided in public schools), the Canadian secular religion education policy applies to their private schools, in addition to their public institutions.

For once this week, at least, a Canadian judge has made a sound decision, finding that learning about multiple religions fostered “equality, respect and tolerance”. Your thoughts on religion education in schools?