The SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) is engaging with the basic education department in highlighting the need to audit all school codes of conduct to ensure they are flexible and accommodating of religious and cultural deviation from mainstream practices.
This after Northcliff High School in Johannesburg came under fire this week for issuing “concession cards” to Muslim children allowing them to wear headscarves as per their religious beliefs.
The incident sparked fury on social media after the mother of one of the children posted a picture showing that her daughter needed to carry the card to wear her headscarf.
Both she and her daughter likened the card to the dompas mandatory to be carried for black South Africans under apartheid law.
But the school principal cited this as a requirement for any pupil who wished to alter their school uniform for whatever reason.
He has since backtracked on this position, stating that the card requirement will be removed for pupils wearing headscarves.
The SAHRC said it recognised “the authority of schools to develop and implement school codes of conduct aimed at, among other things, regulating behaviour and addressing administrative concerns”.
But “it is imperative that schools take reasonable steps to accommodate and promote a respect for diversity, and continually review existing policies to ensure that they are in line with the greater constitutional imperatives of promoting tolerance, equality, and social cohesion”, said SAHRC commissioner Andre Gaum.
The SAHRC has dealt with numerous complaints in respect of the non-alignment of school uniform codes of conduct, he added.
Gaum, without commenting to The Citizen specifically on the case and the school in question – as the matter may be referred to the SAHRC for investigation in future – said its engagement with the department was in line with constitutional values of non-discrimination and respect for diversity.
“The enjoyment of diverse culture and religion is a fundamental right in terms of the constitution.
“The ability of individuals to freely and openly express their culture or religion is therefore integral to the realisation of human dignity.”
The 15-year-old Grade 10 pupil had said she felt she was being “oppressed” upon being instructed to obtain the card.
“The first thing that popped into my head was that it reminded me of carrying around a dompas during the apartheid era. It made me feel oppressed.”
She added that while other learners “didn’t see it as a big deal” that a card needed to be carried, the school should try to add diversity and educate pupils about other religions.
“During assembly they would recite from the Bible, but why not from anything else, like the Koran, Torah or Bhagavad Gita?”
She added that the school’s decision to remove the system was only for those wearing headscarves, but should apply to anyone needing to wear an item for religious reasons.
“There are many children, like Hindu children, who wear a red string, and in African cultures they wear a band on their wrists.”
Gaum reiterated that the prevalence of discrimination within schools, often as a result of codes of conduct, remained a concern for the SAHRC.
“Schools provide a platform for learning and development, and for promoting social cohesion and tolerance.
“As such, the SAHRC has continuously advocated that school codes of conduct must enable learners to exercise diversity to the greatest extent possible.
“This is particularly the case concerning expression of culture and religion, as key elements to one’s identity and linked to the expression of human dignity.”
School headmaster Walter Essex-Clarke initially told The Citizen that where parents had requested a variation in school uniform of any kind a card was issued to children to “cut out the the admin” for any teacher querying the alteration of attire.
This included not having to shave or having long hair required for a role in a play, for example.
“It could even be a request to wear takkies because of health reasons. We then grant permission,” Essex-Clarke said.
“It is not in our interests to discriminate against anyone. It is applied to all the children. If anybody is offended let us know, and you won’t need the card.”
He said the concession card system had been used for years when it came to exceptions to the uniform.
The incident comes after the much-publicised Pretoria Girls High issue, where pupils were told to straighten their hair, as wearing natural hair or Afros was not allowed.
This resulted in protests at the school by pupils and members of the public, and a probe into the issue by the department found that worrying racial incidents had occurred at the school.