SAHRC School Uniforms Report; with Minister

Basic Education

05 March 2024
Chairperson: Ms B Mbinqo-Gigaba (ANC)
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Meeting Summary


The Portfolio Committee on Basic Education convened virtually to consider the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) Report on School Uniforms and the over-regulation of appearances in the Eastern Cape, 2022.

The Minister of Basic Education, Ms Angie Motshekga, provided opening remarks, acknowledging the importance of the topics and talked about the need for the Department to address concerns raised by the Human Rights Commission.

The SAHRC presented the findings of the investigation, highlighting concerns about overregulation, discriminatory practices, and the need for inclusive policies. The SAHRC undertook an assessment of critical issues surrounding various issues that impacted the rights and well-being of school learners across the country, raised in a report published in October 2023. The main issues flagged by the Commission included the necessity to cap the costs of school uniforms to alleviate the financial burden on families. The DBE was tasked with setting a “reasonable” cap on this. The SAHRC also flagged two other issues relating to the “over-regulation” of appearances at schools. These include rules around hair – especially where certain racial, gender and cultural groups are disproportionally affected – and permissions for gender-non-confirming learners to use gender-affirming uniforms.

The Department of Basic Education (DBE) responded to the Human Rights Commission report, outlining efforts to address discrimination and promote social cohesion in schools.

During the discussion, Members raised various concerns and suggestions, including affordability, cultural sensitivity, and parental involvement in decision-making.

The Minister stressed the importance of dialogue and mutual understanding in addressing the complex issues raised by the Commission.

Members also expressed gratitude for the reports presented and stressed the need for collaboration and consultation with stakeholders.

The Chairperson highlighted the significance of school uniforms in fostering unity and reducing discrimination among students. She acknowledged the Commission’s recommendations and the Department's responses, expressing hope for smooth working relations moving forward.

Meeting report

The Committee Secretariat informed the Chairperson that the Committee formed a quorum.

The Chairperson requested assistance with the roll call.

The Committee Secretariat provided the roll call, noting the presence of Committee Members and the apologies from the Deputy Minister of Basic Education due to prior commitments.

The Chairperson thanked the Committee Secretariat for the roll call and then mentioned that she was feeling under the weather.

She welcomed the South African Human Rights Commission delegation. She requested the agenda be displayed and outlined the day's proceedings, including discussions on the South African Human Rights Commission report on school uniforms and the adoption of meeting minutes.

Ms M Moroane (ANC) moved to adopt the agenda.

Ms N Adoons (ANC) seconded the adoption of the agenda.

The Chairperson thanked the Members for adopting the agenda and invited the Minister to provide a political overview.

Opening Remarks by the Minister
The Minister of Basic Education, Ms Angie Motshekga, acknowledged the representatives from the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and officials from the Department of Basic Education (DBE). The Minister stated that she did not have any specific political input to provide at the moment. Instead, she mentioned that the topics to be discussed during the meeting would allow the Department to address concerns raised. She emphasised the importance of allowing the presentation from the South African Human Rights Commission to take place before responding to any raised matters. The Minister concluded by thanking the Committee for the opportunity to present and engage with them.

SARHC Report on School Uniform Regulation
Dr Eileen Carter, Provincial Head: Eastern Cape, SAHRC, thanked the Commissioner, the Chairperson and Members, and the Minister for the opportunity to present. She proceeded directly to the presentation, with a brief overview of the Commission's mandate and the context of their investigation.

She outlined the Commission's powers derived from the Constitution, particularly focusing on the Commission’s responsibility to promote and protect human rights. Dr Carter referenced relevant legislation, including the South African Human Rights Commission Act, which grants them the authority to investigate complaints independently or upon receipt.

Regarding the investigation into school uniform regulations, Dr Carter highlighted the increase in reports of alleged overregulation, prompting the Commission to conduct an inquiry. The inquiry involved various stakeholders, including education officials, private schools, labour unions, and complainants.

She summarised the key themes emerging from submissions, emphasising concerns about gender-neutral policies, regulation of hairstyles, and accommodation of cultural and religious symbols. Dr Carter noted inconsistencies in policy implementation and discriminatory practices against gender non-conforming learners.

The presentation delved into historical and comparative analyses of school uniform policies, drawing parallels with European and colonial influences. Dr Carter questioned the applicability of certain policies to the South African context, particularly regarding disciplinary actions related to appearance.
The Commission's analysis cast doubt on the claimed benefits of school uniforms in improving discipline and academic performance. Concerns were raised about the enforcement of policies, particularly regarding hairstyles and gender-specific dress codes.

Dr Carter highlighted instances of discriminatory practices, such as the two-finger policy for measuring hair length and gender-based distinctions in disciplinary actions. She emphasised the need for a rights-respecting educational environment, challenging Eurocentric norms and advocating for diversity and inclusion.

Dr Carter presented the Commission's recommendations, calling for abolishing discriminatory hair policies, providing gender-neutral options, and eradicating invasive monitoring practices. She urged the National Department and provincial authorities to conduct audits of school codes and implement binding directives to ensure compliance with human rights standards.

Acknowledging the collaborative role of private school authorities, Dr Carter stressed the ultimate responsibility of government entities in promoting inclusive and rights-respecting uniform policies. She thanked the opportunity to present the report, and handed over to Prof Mandlingozi for concluding remarks.

Prof Tshepo Madlingozi, SAHRC Commissioner, thanked Dr Carter, the Minister, and the Chairperson of the Committee. He acknowledged that, while the inquiry took place in the Eastern Cape, its implications were national in scope. The report was shared with the Select Committee of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) and with relevant Eastern Cape stakeholders, including the Provincial Department of Basic Education and the Office of the Premier.

Highlighting the systemic issues of discrimination and unfair practices uncovered in the report, Prof Madlingozi emphasised the need for directives to address these issues. He concluded by summarising the key points of the report.

(For more details, see attached presentation and report)

Department of Basic Education Response to Human Rights Commission Report
Mr Likho Bottoman, Deputy Director: Social Mobilisation and Support, Department of Basic Education (DBE), presented the Department's response to the findings and recommendations made by the Commission. He began by acknowledging the ongoing conversations regarding human rights compliance in basic education and mentioned the Department's commitment to ensuring social cohesion and inclusion in schools.

Mr Bottoman highlighted the Department's efforts to engage stakeholders and address issues related to discrimination, unfair procurement models for school uniforms, cultural and religious identity markers, and gender nonconformity. He stressed the importance of collaboration with the Competition Commission to address pricing and procurement issues surrounding school uniforms.

Mr Bottoman discussed the development of protocols and guidance documents aimed at promoting human rights compliance in schools. He outlined the Department's timeline for addressing the Commission's findings and recommendations, emphasising the need for thorough consultation with stakeholders.

Mr Bottoman also addressed concerns regarding the extension of the Commission's powers and the practical steps being taken to alleviate the financial burden of school uniforms on families. He highlighted the Department's commitment to social inclusion and developing gender-neutral uniform policies.

Mr Bottoman requested the Portfolio Committee's support in implementing the Department's response to the Commission's report and thanked the Committee for its attention to the matter.

Minister’s Input
Minister Motshekga expressed her apologies for having to leave the meeting early due to another commitment but wanted to add to the points raised by the previous speaker. She mentioned that the issues highlighted by the SAHRC are historical and were addressed in the previous administration. The Minister mentioned a previous meeting on school uniforms convened by the Council for Education Ministers (CEM) that involved various stakeholders, including parents, the private sector, and school governing bodies (SGBs), resulting in agreements and conclusions.

The Minister suggested retrieving the report from that meeting to provide additional context and insights into the discussions around school uniforms. She acknowledged the complexity of the issues raised by the SAHRC but defended the use of school uniforms in the South African context, citing reasons such as safety and identification. The Minister highlighted the ongoing engagement with specific communities, like the Muslim community, to address their unique concerns.

Regarding the timeframes proposed by the SAHRC, the Minister expressed reservations, stating that a year might not be realistic given the ongoing processes, including school governing body (SGB) elections and the induction of the new administration. She talked about the need for realistic timeframes. She suggested that after May 2024, the next administration would be better positioned to determine a feasible timeline based on decisions made at the CEM.

The Minister concluded by requesting further engagement on the matter, advocating for a collaborative approach where agreements and disagreements can be discussed openly. She called for the removal of specific timeframes and urged consideration of the realities and complexities within the education sector.

Mr B Madlingozi (EFF) raised several points regarding the pricing and sourcing of school uniforms. He suggested exploring the formation of cooperatives within communities to produce school uniforms, which could create jobs and reduce costs. He highlighted existing initiatives, such as the Sinakho Skills Development Centre in KwaLanga, as examples to emulate.

Regarding hairstyles, Mr Madlingozi advocated for flexibility while also cautioning against excessively extravagant hairstyles that may disrupt the learning environment. He proposed considering darker uniform colours for students from low-income families to address challenges with frequent washing due to financial constraints. He also addressed gender expression, advocating for school uniform designs that accommodate diverse gender identities beyond traditional European styles. He suggested incorporating clothing options, such as ponchos, worn by both sexes, inspired by African cultural practices.

Additionally, he raised concerns about the fit of school tracksuits, emphasising the importance of comfort for effective learning. Mr Madlingozi concluded by stressing the need for students to feel comfortable in their attire to support their educational journey.

Ms Moroane welcomed both the Minister's presentation, which highlighted work done before the current administration, and the report from the South Africa Human Rights Commission.

Ms Moroane then focused on a specific matter related to school uniforms. She questioned whether the approval of school policies (BELA Bill) by the Head of Department (HOD) would provide a framework to address challenges related to uniforms and appearance policies. She specifically raised concerns about policies infringing on the rights of girl learners, particularly the regulation of undergarments. She questioned the necessity of regulating such private aspects and checking students' undergarments in schools. She sought clarification on the underlying problems that prompted the need for such regulations.

Mr B Nodada (DA) expressed his regret for arriving late to the meeting. He acknowledged receiving the documentation and presentations beforehand and stressed the importance of tackling socioeconomic inequalities in South Africa. Mr Nodada illustrated the challenges faced by learners from diverse class backgrounds, citing an example of a learner from Tsolo, Eastern Cape, and another from Umhlanga, KwaZulu-Natal, who encounter differences when meeting for the first time in tertiary institutions.

He cautioned against comparing South Africa's context to that of other countries, advocating for evidence-based and realistic approaches to uniform policies. Mr Nodada questioned whether the SAHRC considered international examples, like those from the United States, when advising on uniform policies. He emphasised the significance of engaging with parents and communities to ensure policies are culturally and religiously sensitive.

Mr Nodada raised concerns about the affordability of school uniforms for learners dependent on social grants, highlighting examples of learners who rely on these grants for essentials like meals and stationery. He queried about engagements with the Competition Commission to regulate uniform prices and provide assistance to families.

He discussed the need to strengthen mechanisms for addressing discrimination in schools and ensuring policies align with the Constitution. Mr Nodada shared personal experiences of discriminatory uniform policies and stressed the importance of empowering parents and communities to intervene effectively.

Mr Nodada posed specific questions to the Department, underlining the importance of addressing socioeconomic disparities and safeguarding learners' constitutional rights.

Mr Nodada continued, addressing the issue of supporting indigent learners with school uniforms. He queried whether the Department of Basic Education is considering subsidising learners' school uniforms based on discussions with the Competition Commission or as a separate initiative aimed at ensuring learners are not distracted at school.

Moving on, Mr Nodada raised concerns about the limited supply of school uniforms, often confined to certain suppliers endorsed by school governing bodies. He questioned the regulation of these suppliers and pricing, particularly when prices become unaffordable for low-income groups. He sought clarification on the responsibility for regulating pricing and intervention mechanisms if agreements between school governing bodies and suppliers result in unreasonable pricing.

Lastly, Mr Nodada inquired whether the Department is considering a standardised guideline for uniform policies. He emphasised the importance of providing guidance to schools while allowing flexibility and sought information on available departmental support to address such issues.

Concluding his remarks, Mr Nodada acknowledged the input from the SAHRC but urged for more engagement to find a middle ground that protects learners' constitutional rights while respecting the diverse cultural and religious beliefs within South Africa's communities. He emphasised the need to involve parents and communities in decision-making regarding their children's education.

Ms M Sukers (ACDP) echoed Mr Nodada's emphasis on decision-making at the school level, involving parents and communities, especially in a culturally diverse South Africa. Ms Sukers expressed concern about imposing views from different contexts on communities, parents, and schools.

She raised two significant concerns. Firstly, she questioned the priority given to the report by the SA Human Rights Commission, considering pressing issues like learner pregnancy, gang violence, bullying, language discrimination, and the lack of progress on online schooling. Ms Sukers highlighted difficulties in accessing the Human Rights Commission's assistance, particularly in addressing serious violations in communities.

Regarding the research on the nature and scale of SGB and language policy discrimination, Ms Sukers questioned the progress and priority given to these issues. She emphasised the need for national dialogues and meaningful stakeholder engagement before any action is taken. She concurred with the Minister that the timeframes were not cognisant of the activities that Parliament has.

Ms Sukers stressed the importance of parental involvement, especially concerning transgender learners, and called for a clearly articulated parental involvement policy before moving forward. She highlighted the challenges faced by learners, such as the lack of proper shoes, especially during winter, which underscores the need to prioritise the rights of children, particularly in vulnerable situations.

Ms Sukers urged for a re-evaluation of priorities to address the pressing needs of learners and communities, emphasising the importance of considering the context and rights of all stakeholders involved.

Mr P Moroatshehla (ANC) began by expressing gratitude for the opportunity to speak and echoed his predecessors' appreciation for the reports presented to the Portfolio Committee on Basic Education. He supported Ms Sukers' comments regarding the unrealistic and unreasonable timeframes recommended by the Commission, emphasising the need for thorough consultation with all stakeholders in addressing the complex issues at hand.

Highlighting South Africa's diverse historical context and the impact of apartheid and colonialism on culture and religion, Mr Moroatshehla stressed the importance of considering these factors in policymaking. He raised questions about approving the BELA Bill of school policies by governing bodies and whether they adequately address uniform and appearance-related policies.

Mr Moroatshehla emphasised the need to understand the philosophical underpinnings of school uniforms and their psychosocial impact, seeking clarification on how they contribute to learner safety and discipline. He also questioned the market structure of the uniform manufacturing industry and the extent of regulation regarding girls' underwear in schools, expressing concerns about privacy and dignity.

Regarding school uniform policies, Mr Moroatshehla sought clarification on the recommendation to abolish hair policies differentiating between male and female learners, advocating for the protection of the rights of learners who identify differently. He concluded by seeking further insights from the South African Human Rights Commission on these complex issues.

Ms M Van Zyl (DA) appreciated the presentations and emphasised the importance of decentralising decision-making to the school level, involving parents and children rather than centralising it with higher authorities.

Acknowledging the vital role of uniforms in society, Ms Van Zyl echoed Mr Nodada's remarks about the need for uniforms to become the norm, especially given the socioeconomic disparities where some children can afford uniforms while others cannot. She emphasised that children should focus on education without being ridiculed for their attire.

Ms Van Zyl posed two questions for clarification. Firstly, she inquired about the considerations taken into account when setting guidelines for school uniform designs to ensure affordability for all learners. Secondly, she asked about the Department's collaboration with schools and parents to strike a balance between uniformity and allowing for unique school identities.

The Chairperson expressed gratitude to all the Members for their contributions to both presentations. She raised several issues, partly addressed by the Members, and sought clarity on the substantive nature of complaints received by the SAHRC. Specifically, she inquired whether the complaints were from learners, teachers, or parents and the age groups involved.

Referencing a past meeting in the Eastern Cape, she queried whether DBE consulted traditional leaders, school governing bodies, and faith-based organisations in connection with the BELA Bill. She asked if the SAHRC had done the same regarding this issue of school uniforms and what their responses were. Additionally, she highlighted the positive aspects of school uniforms and emphasised their role in fostering uniformity and reducing discrimination among students from diverse backgrounds.

The Chairperson noted the unrealistic conclusions presented to the Department and emphasised the unique cultural context of South Africa. She highlighted the role of uniforms in creating unity among students and concealing socioeconomic differences.

Prof Madlingozi highlighted the sensitivities surrounding cultural, religious, and socioeconomic factors in the education sector. He mentioned the daily complaints the SAHRC received regarding school uniforms and their impact on cultural expressions, sexual orientation, and religious beliefs. To address these concerns, the SAHRC decided to conduct an inquiry involving various stakeholders from faith-based communities, NGOs, and government departments. The inquiry formed the basis for the SAHRC's recommendations and findings.

He clarified that the SAHRC's recommendation is not to abolish uniforms but to balance different constitutional rights, including the right to equality, cultural and religious beliefs, and dignity. The SAHRC is open to engaging with the Department on timeframes for implementing recommendations and has developed a model code of conduct aligning with constitutional principles.

Prof Madlingozi emphasised that while school uniforms are a priority, the SAHRC also focuses on other critical issues such as literacy and eradicating pit latrines. He expressed readiness to address specific questions on the inquiry and report, handing over to Dr Carter for further details.

Dr Carter thanked Commissioner Madlingozi for providing context and insights into the work of the SAHRC. She addressed specific points raised by him and other Members.
Firstly, Dr Carter highlighted the importance of assessing the affordability of school uniforms, mentioning that the SAHRC has requested the Department of Basic Education to undertake this assessment in collaboration with the Competition Commission. She emphasised that the options proposed by Prof Madlingozi would be beneficial in finding a way forward on this issue.

Regarding research, Dr Carter affirmed that the SAHRC's report contains citations demonstrating comparative analysis with other countries. She echoed Mr Nodada's sentiment that South Africa's context differs significantly from that of other nations, emphasising the need to reflect on the country's own legacies and unique diversity.

Dr Carter clarified that the SAHRC is not advocating for abolishing school uniforms but rather for their accessibility and affordability, especially in an unequal society like South Africa. She underscored the Commission's commitment to promoting rights in the basic education sector through various activities outlined in their mandate.

In terms of consultation, Dr Carter explained that the SAHRC conducted extensive consultations, including with traditional communities, to understand how restrictive school uniform policies might impact cultural and religious freedoms. She mentioned the importance of consultation and reiterated that the benchmark for the SAHRC remains the Bill of Rights.

Dr Carter addressed the question of who complains to the SAHRC, noting that both parents and children utilise the SAHRC's child-friendly complaint mechanism. She shared examples of cases, such as the Ms Nare Mphela matter in Limpopo, where transgender learners faced discrimination – highlighting the importance of ensuring children's voices are heard and their rights protected.
In conclusion, Dr Carter thanked the Chairperson and reiterated the SAHRC's commitment to upholding constitutional rights, especially those of children, and ensuring their voices are heard and acted upon.

Minister Motshekga emphasised the need for dialogue and mutual understanding between the Commission and the DBE to effectively sddress the issues raised in the report.

The Minister highlighted that the Commission's report does not advocate for the abolishment of school uniforms but rather questions certain aspects of uniform policies. She stressed the importance of considering the perspectives of parents and school governing bodies in decision-making regarding uniforms, as they ultimately determine what is best for their children.

Addressing concerns about uniform policies, the Minister mentioned instances where inappropriate attire, such as short skirts and revealing undergarments, may be a concern in schools. She said there is a need to instil certain values and standards among students while respecting their individual rights.

The Minister thanked the Commission's assistance on various matters, including the reading report and issues related to pit latrines. She suggested further engagement between the Commission and the Department to exchange views and perceptions, ensuring a balanced understanding of the issues at hand.

The Minister thanked the Commission and the Members for their contributions, expressing agreement with many of the sentiments raised and stressing the importance of addressing concerns collaboratively and constructively.

Dr Hubert Mweli, Director-General, DBE, expressed appreciation for the inputs from the Minister, Members, and the Commission. He emphasised the importance of working together with the Commission and highlighted the diverse views and stakeholder engagements regarding the report.

Dr Mweli mentioned consultations with teacher unions, school governing bodies, provincial education Departments, and civil society organisations representing over 200 education-related groups in South Africa. He acknowledged the challenges of engaging stakeholders with diverse views, citing the lengthy process of getting learners back to school during the COVID-19 pandemic as an example.

Regarding engagements with the Competition Commission, Dr Mweli noted discussions on guidelines for school uniforms and efforts to address collusion in the market structure affecting prices.

He expressed confidence in the Portfolio Committee's guidance and emphasised the importance of collaboration with the SAHRC. Dr Mweli reiterated the role of the ministry in providing guidelines, monitoring, and supporting schools while respecting the autonomy of school governing bodies and management.

In conclusion, Dr Mweli thanked the Committee, the Minister, and the Commission for their contributions and guidance, expressing readiness to initiate technical engagements to move the process forward.

The Chairperson thanked the SAHRC, the Minister, the Director-General, and everyone from the DBE for participating in the meeting. She acknowledged that the process had been enlightening and noted the decision to address the matter at the National Assembly level instead of referring it to the Eastern Cape Legislature.

The Chairperson affirmed respect for the Commission's views and noted the Department's responses and attitude regarding the matter. She expressed hope for smooth working relations moving forward.

Finally, she concluded the meeting by releasing the SAHRC and the Department, leaving the Members to further examine the report.

Draft Legacy Report
The Chairperson indicated that the report was originally scheduled to be presented next week on 12 March 2024, according to the programme. However, since it was still a draft, Members had the opportunity to provide input before it was finalised. Members were encouraged to make any additional contributions they deemed necessary. The Chairperson emphasised that the report serves as a summary of the Committee's work for the sixth administration, intended to be passed on to those who will serve in the 7th administration after the elections.

The Content Advisor provided an overview of the draft report, which aimed to assess the legacy of the Basic Education Portfolio of the 6th Parliament from 2019 to 2024. The report covered various aspects, including key highlights, functions of the Committee, challenges, recommendations, and legislative activities.

Key highlights from the period included focusing on improving learning outcomes, addressing the impact of COVID-19 on schools, professional development of teachers, infrastructure improvements, and promoting inclusive education. The Committee also collaborated with other parliamentary committees and governmental bodies, conducted oversight visits to provinces, and processed legislation such as the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill.

Challenges identified included delays due to COVID-19, underachievement in meeting government priorities, and issues with infrastructure and ICT progress. Recommendations focused on aligning annual performance plans with strategic frameworks, monitoring funding models and international study outcomes, and addressing challenges like unemployment among youth and infrastructure inadequacies.

The report highlighted the Committee's functions, oversight methods, and engagement with stakeholders, including labour unions, NGOs, and governmental bodies. It detailed the Committee's activities, such as meetings, oversight trips, and legislative processes, over the five-year period.
The report also discussed the processing of legislation, oversight trips undertaken, engagements with stakeholders, and challenges faced during oversight activities. It emphasised the importance of aligning departmental plans with strategic frameworks, monitoring progress, and addressing internal operational challenges to enhance oversight effectiveness.

The Chairperson proposed postponing engagements on the legacy report to the following week, citing an already scheduled slot for it on Tuesday, 12 March 2024. She explained that this delay would allow Members ample time to review and make any necessary corrections to the report. The intent, she stated, was to utilise the next meeting for bidding farewell and sharing experiences before the end of the Committee's term. Additionally, she suggested including representatives from the Department in the meeting if feasible, noting that subsequent meetings would focus on the budget process with the Department and entities. Therefore, she recommended adopting the report the following week to facilitate farewell speeches.

Further, the Chairperson mentioned that if any additions were desired, they could be sent in writing to the Committee Content Advisor, but extensive discussions on the report would be deferred to next week. She reminded Members that requests for additions had been solicited since last week, and any issues or missing points should have been addressed then. She clarified that the intention for next week was not to dwell extensively on the legacy report. Finally, she asked if all Members were in agreement with this plan, to which they confirmed their agreement.

Ms Sukers stated that she had inputs that she would forward to the Content Advisor and hoped that they would be included in the report.

The Chairperson noted that there was a sitting at 14:00, and proposed to close the meeting to accommodate that.

Members wished the Chairperson a speedy recovery.

The meeting was adjourned.


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