Defend Truth


Don’t throw the Bela baby out with the bathwater – there’s some very good stuff in there


Jonathan Molver is the founding Director of Proteus, which works with government, the private sector and civil society to build stronger, equitable education systems. He was previously the South Africa Country Director of the nonprofit Education Partnerships Group. He began his career as a teacher in Emalahleni and was later principal of King Solomon Academy in London, one of the UK’s highest-performing schools.

The Basic Education Law Amendment Bill (Bela Bill) has made a good start with an evidence-based and consultation-driven approach.

Public hearings on the Basic Education Law Amendment Bill (Bela Bill) concluded on 4 April 2024. Following the hearings, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) has announced that it will proceed with the revisions, in spite of opposition from the public and other political parties.

While much of the Bill has been rejected outright, on close inspection, the proposed amendments appear to be grounded in evidence and well placed to strengthen the basic education sector. The challenge with the Bill lies not in the proposed revisions, but in the department’s ability to implement these effectively at scale.

The school and educator legislation revision initiated in 2013 led to the publication of the Bill in 2017. Following consultation, the revised Bill was tabled in the National Assembly in 2022. Notice of the Bela Bill introduction was announced in the Government Gazette in 2021. Despite opposition, the department plans to proceed with Bela.

The proposed revisions are both good and necessary, seeking to strengthen governance by addressing sections that have proven challenging for the sector. The DBE has utilised monitoring data to review the challenges the sector faces with regard to governance, accountability, access and quality, and has through a process of consultation proposed revisions to the Bill that will ostensibly ensure greater access, better quality and strengthened accountability across the system.

Sound approach

This is evident in each of the 56 clauses in the Bill. To illustrate the sound approach in developing the amendments, I take a brief look at three.

Clause 2 outlines compulsory school attendance beginning in Grade R. This should be received as a necessary and important change, given all we know about the benefits of early access to schooling on longer term learning outcomes.

Clause 39 seeks to increase accountability for school governing bodies (SGBs). Key amendments include “to provide that the Head of Department may, on reasonable grounds, dissolve a governing body that has ceased to perform its functions”; “to further regulate the circumstances under which a governing body may pay additional remuneration, or give any other financial benefit or benefit in kind, to a state employee”; and “to extend the powers of the Head of Department to conduct an investigation into the financial affairs of a public school”.

Given the high levels of fraud, nepotism, cronyism and corruption on SGBs, this should be an amendment that we all welcome.

Clauses 4 and 5 (perhaps the most significant amendments) propose “to provide that the governing body of a public school must submit the admission and language policies of the public school to the Head of Department for approval”.

The right to determine admissions, languages and fees has allowed predominantly white and privileged communities to maintain and “protect” their school intake. Only recently have many begun adapting their admissions and language policies (often under duress from provincial governments), encouraging a more diverse intake of learners. 

This amendment is a bold and radical move to drive equity and inclusion by limiting the powers of SGBs to exclude on the basis of race, language and academic performance.

While the proposed amendments are good, they have not avoided controversy or contestation. The National Council of Provinces (NCOP) received a total of 38,170 consultation submissions, with a large number of clauses contested.

This is unfortunate. But not unsurprising.

A recent paper titled “Spark and Sustain” by McKinsey & Company, interviewed over 200 individuals across more than 100 education systems. The paper provides a helpful framework for education systems implementing effective improvements at scale, based on a four-phased approach:

  1. Anchor in the evidence;
  2. Build a durable coalition for change;
  3. Create delivery capacity to scale; and
  4. Drive and adapt with data.

When held up against this framework, the Bill appears to be another classic case of ideological aspirations, built on evidence, that do not align with reality when we consider implementation. Put differently – the challenge with Bela lies not in whether or not these amendments should be adopted, but rather with how they will be implemented.

Consider the cost

Let’s go back to the proposal to make Grade R schooling compulsory for every child. The amendment considers the importance of attending formal schooling from an early age. It does not, however, appear to have considered the cost of implementation.

The financial burden of compulsory Grade R schooling has been calculated as R5.12-billion (as of 2022). The infrastructure cost alone is estimated at R12-billion, and yet there is no breakdown for this in terms of salaries, training and materials.

Furthermore, it is unclear what consideration has been given to the quality and rigour of Grade R schooling, and the subsequent increase in administrative oversight that will be required from provincial education departments. If it is to be successful, the introduction of compulsory Grade R schooling should follow a phased approach based on resource availability and comprehensive planning.


The same is true for the clauses on strengthened accountability. Although absolutely necessary, these amendments have also overlooked the need to create the delivery capacity to scale. The Head of Department, for example, has long held the power to remove functions from SGBs. SGBs have long been subject to financial audits. And yet, fraud and corruption continue to run rife in schools.

The reality is that departments don’t have the capacity to rigorously monitor and regulate SGBs. Changing the Bill won’t suddenly change this. If we are going to strengthen accountability, we need to build the institutional capacity to do so.

Admissions and language policies

The most controversial clauses of Bela are the amendments to admissions and language policies. These have predominantly been perceived as an assault on Afrikaans-only medium schools, as the sections require that admission and language policies are submitted to HoDs, and give the HoD final authority on the admission of a learner to a school, and on the language of education at a school.

Every child deserves the right to attend a school where the language of instruction is their mother tongue – and this right should be preserved for all.

But this right must be balanced with the right for every child to attend a quality school within the vicinity of their place of residence. Preserving the language of instruction at schools is often a fine line between realising the right to be taught in one’s home language and the benefits and cultural promotion and preservation that this represents; and the exclusion of learners from schools that are more geographically accessible.

These sections of the Bill mitigate for this tension by making provision for extensive public notice, public participation, provision of clear grounds for HoD decisions and appeal processes. Necessary measures, which once again highlight the administrative burden that this will place on an already strained system short of capacity.

The temptation, particularly with education, is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We must avoid doing this with Bela. The Bill has made a good start with an evidence-based and consultation-driven approach.

But, if the amendments are to be effective, sustained and scaled, we need to do more. Critically, we need to realistically reflect on how to develop the capacity required to deliver at scale and then support this with robust plans and realistic budgets.

These plans should be backed up with rigorous monitoring and evaluation frameworks that track implementation, extract key learnings and utilise these to iterate, adapt, and improve.

If we can begin to move from ideology to action, we might just begin to see the first green shoots of lasting change and transformation that we’ve all been waiting for – and we may just be able to hang on to that bathwater we so desperately need. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Rona van Niekerk says:

    The major concern with any new legislation lies in giving more power to government departments, as there is no evidence to support the idea that they will use this wisely. In fact, most (if not all) evidence points to the reverse. For example, under the current legislation, a provincial department suspended the operation of a functioning SGB seemingly on the whim of a (junior?) official. When challenged, the suspension was withdrawn.
    Some kind of appeal process (perhaps to the National Department) needs to be built in. Otherwise you can have politicians &/or unions driving a process for reasons unrelated (or even negatively related) to the needs of learners.

  • Peter Wanliss says:

    Given that there is no consideration of how the “good” parts of Bela will be financed, one should consider these to be window dressing in order to push through Bela so that it can achieve its actual objective, which is the hegemonic control envisaged by the National Democratic Revolution.
    The rights and duties of parents to educate are anathema to those who wish to make education a prerogative of the state and pupils the “wards” of politicians.
    This bill is not directed towards the schools where corruption and the buying of positions is prevalent. It is aimed at those institutions that stand as beacons of excellence and hope in the quagmire of South African education.

  • Martin Neethling says:

    Why does Molver place in brackets the word protect? He comments that the right to manage admissions has “allowed privileged and predominantly white communities to maintain and “protect” their school intake. Exactly. And this is exactly what they should do. No one else will right, and definitely not the Education Department, nor bystanders like Molver. In SA we have wrecked a lot of things that work, that achieve results. In almost every sphere of our lives and the economy and society we have lost competitiveness and slid down the rankings. Our government, cheered on by the soft left like Molver, appear to resent competence, and are outright hostile to excellence. An admissions policy that protects a school’s language policy for example, or it’s religious position, or it’s sporting, cultural or academic traditions, are fundamental to what that schools is. They define it. Clearly if you want your kid to go to that school, you embrace that. Surely? The ANC has done previous little to improve education outcomes in 30 years. We don’t need to speculate if this framing is unfair. Along the way many many formerly successful schools have been wrecked on the alter of transformation, no Education Department help needed. This Bill empowers this department to speed up the devastating of what’s left. It should be unapologetically rejected.

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