In a country plagued by child sexual abuse, teen pregnancy, destructive inter-generational sexual relationships and high youth HIV rates, who could possibly object to children learning concepts like consent and contraception from a young age?
Quite a few people, as it turns out. Religious lobby groups, the South African Teachers’ Union (SAOU), the Federation for School Governing Bodies and the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) have all expressed outrage at the government’s Comprehensive Sexuality Education plan, to be rolled out in schools nationally in 2020.
Even the liberal DA has called on Parliament to hold a further public consultation on the matter, warning in a statement: “Sex education must strike a careful balance between equipping young people with the information they need to make the right choices, and unintentionally over-sexualising learners”.
The Department of Basic Education (DBE) has responded to the uproar with some bemusement, pointing out that Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) has been part of the curriculum since 2000.
“The only change is that in 2015 the DBE developed Scripted Lesson Plans (SLPs) which are currently being tested in five provinces in order to strengthen the teaching of CSE in schools,” the department said in a statement.
Part of the problem has seemed to be confusion over what these lesson plans actually contain, sparking rumours that children as young as Grade 4s would be taught to masturbate, and similarly outlandish speculation.
In an attempt to clarify matters, the DBE this week released online the relevant lesson plans for Grades 4 to 12, alongside notes stating that a “rigorous review” had concluded that the curriculum “does not teach learners how to have sex” and “does not sexualise children”.
On the department’s side is a body of international research and evidence concluding that such education is a vital tool in combating transactional sex, STDs and sexual assault.
“CSE enables young people to adopt positive sexual behaviours, such as delaying the age of sexual debut, reducing the frequency of sex and number of sexual partners, and increasing use of contraception, especially condoms”.
The lesson plans have a strong emphasis on understanding inappropriate behaviour, recognising such conduct from peers and adults and teaching children to reject and report abuse.
But the responses thus far from lobby groups indicate that objections to the syllabus are, in reality, part of a far wider culture war.
This is made clear in a statement by one such organisation, Christian View Network, responding to the DBE’s release of the lesson plans.
The primary points of objection, it seems, are that the lesson plans inform learners about homosexuality and abortion.
“The lesson plans attempt to normalise killing of unborn babies as part of ‘reproductive health’ and as a ‘decision’ to discuss,” Christian View Network writes.
“The lessons in multiple places attempt to normalise lesbianism, sodomy and sex outside of marriage”.
The group also objects to the fact that Grade 11 lesson plan lists as “role models” figures like gay and HIV-positive activist Zackie Achmat and retired Judge Edwin Cameron.
“The scripted lesson plans are an attempt to impose a revolutionary gender and sexual agenda on South Africa, funded by the United States Government,” concludes Christian View Network.
It is unclear how the group comes to the conclusion that US government funds are behind the resources, particularly given the executive order signed by President Donald Trump on his fourth day in office prohibiting the funding of institutions which promote safe abortions.
In reality, there is evidence to suggest that some of the organisations opposing the syllabus are benefiting from US funding, albeit not through the US government.
Wits researcher Haley McEwen recently wrote that one of the US organisations mobilising opposition to South Africa’s CSE programme is Family Watch International, which has launched identical protests to similar curricula in Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana.
Writes McEwen: “These campaigns are ideologically related to global anti-gender campaigns that have banned gender studies, such as those in Brazil and Hungary, and ongoing efforts to do the same in western Europe”.
Daily Maverick has previously reported on the manner in which anti-gay sentiment in Africa is being actively fomented by US evangelical churches, which see Africa as the next frontier for power and influence.
As such, some degree of what is happening in response to the CSE plans is part of a much wider global battle for dominance between progressive and conservative forces.
Even for those entirely homegrown groups opposing the syllabus, it is clear that the criticism is founded primarily on opposition to homosexuality and abortion.
The ACDP, for instance, has repeatedly attempted to build support for amending South African legislation around abortion. The party’s most recent effort, in 2018, would have introduced draconian constraints to the circumstances under which South African women could obtain abortions, including requiring a social worker and a doctor to certify that a pregnancy would “significantly affect the socioeconomic circumstances of the woman concerned”.
Another CSE critic, the Family Policy Institute, is helmed by Errol Naidoo — the preacher who blamed the Marikana massacre on “abortion-on-demand” and the “homosexual agenda”.
Yet the CSE lesson plans simply reflect to learners the rights which are enshrined in the South African Constitution and the Bill of Rights when it comes to sexual orientation and the termination of pregnancy.
DBE Minister Angie Motshekga has already indicated that parents will have the right to pull their children from the CSE programmes if they can produce an alternative curriculum that meets “the required competencies”.
It is to be hoped, however, that the DBE will stand its ground against groups who seem willing to endanger the health and safety of South Africa’s schoolchildren in pursuit of conservative agendas. DM