Hans Pietersen has been working towards getting the matter of religious bias in South African public schools heard by the courts since 2009. This week, it finally happened.
OGOD is the name of the organisation he founded and chairs, and who brought the case to the Johannesburg High Court. But don’t let that bit of blasphemy in the name fool you. Even though there are many atheists in the organisation, their cause is a secular rather than atheist one, and as I’ve argued before, the difference is crucial.
Well. Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga and I had a rather interesting morning. I was part of the group that drafted a charter on rights and responsibilities for religious conduct at schools, and today we (and other interested parties) gathered to discuss the charter, and to hear the Minister’s thoughts on “harmful religious practices” in schools.
Instead, what we mostly got was lessons in how many demons are out there, hungering for your kids’ brains souls, and how only Jesus can save them.
Ferlon Christians, the Western Cape Leader of the African Christian Democratic Party, would have you believe that the problem with the occult – especially in schools – is that we don’t take it seriously enough. In fact, the problem is the opposite one – we take the occult far too seriously.
“We” take it seriously enough, in fact, that our Department of Basic Education, which sometimes can’t even provide textbooks or toilets to schools, are dispatching “officials to investigate‚ together with school authorities‚ the ‘Charlie Charlie Challenge’”.
For those of you who aren’t Error Naidoo or Harry Potter, you can catch up on what the ‘Charlie Charlie’ challenge is by watching eNCA’s “full investigation”. Alternatively, you can take my word for the fact that it’s a parlour game involving creating a yes/no grid, stacking two pencils on top of each other, and then freaking out when gravity causes the pencils to move.
The freaking out is as a result of the “successful” summoning of a Mexican spirit who is mysteriously called Charlie, in honour of the many thousands of Mexicans who are called Charlie. You ask Charlie a question, and then the pencils move to provide a yes or no answer.
And, the freaking out on the part of Mr Christians, the Department of Basic Education and Bored from Bonteheuwel, that frequent caller to talk-radio, is due to simple superstition and ignorance.
You’d think that schools and national Departments of Education would use this as an opportunity to teach basic physics, as well as truths about human psychology such as confirmation bias. Instead, we read of school principals saying that “any pupil caught playing it will be expelled”, and of school pupils reporting suicides and school walls collapsing as a result of this game.
Well, this is what happens when you take a perfectly explicable phenomenon and add wacko metaphysics involving demons and curses to your explanation of it, just as we used to do with something like the Ouija board.
Seriously, parents, Mr Christians and the Department of Basic Education – if kids kill themselves as a result of playing Charlie Charlie, it’s not a Mexican demon’s fault. It’s the fault of a worldview detached from reality, and an education system that tolerates and even encourages that worldview.
In other words, and to some extent, it’s your fault, and blaming imaginary Mexican demons makes as much sense as blaming Harry Potter would.
Here’s a Whatsapp message a friend forwarded to me, which is apparently being circulated in one school:
Parents, guardians and learners. This is extremely important. I have received a letter from a school today encouraging parents to speak to there children about the Demonic Game Charlie Charlie they are playing on the schools nowadays.
A grade 4 boy fainted while playing this game and his pencil started spinning. When he woke up the pencil was still spinning.
Then I received a Whatsapp message of an incident that took place in Tafelsig Mitchells Plain today regarding this Demonic Game Charlie Charlie. Some boys placed two pens across each other and called out Charlie Charlie. The pens started to spin by itself and stopped by pointing at one boy.
This boy just started to bleed from his head profusely. The condition of the boy is still unknown.
According to our Ulama and experts in Jinn, its a demon (very dangerous jinn) from Mexico moving around schools inciting youngsters to play this game in order to harm them. This could even result in their death. Plz inform as many as you can.
And, for more hyperbole, consider this official press statement from the aforementioned ACDP Provincial Leader, Mr Christians:
In light of events such as the death of Kirsty Theologo, who was set alight in what many described as a “Satanic ritual”, the Department of Basic Education has set up a “harmful religious practices task team”, charged with developing a charter of rights and responsibilities related to religious practices in schools and other learning centers.
Many of you would know my position on these “Satanic” murders (and other crimes) already, which in short asks us to make a distinction between confused kids, operating in a manner they think licensed by their (mis)understanding of “the occult”, and the many completely sincere, peaceful Wiccans, pagans, Satanists etc., who neither participate nor condone criminal acts such as these.
So when I heard about this task team, I requested that I be included, as I feared that regardless of the (completely appropriate) intent to keep schoolchildren safe, that the eventual charter might have ended up demonising anything other than the mainstream religions in an effort to do so, and also perpetuating misunderstanding of what they actually stand for.
Freedom of religion is for all, including those who subscribe to a religion you don’t like, and those who reject religion in its entirety. Likewise, the law applies to us all – and as I wrote at the time of the Harmse case, it might add little explanatory value to appeal to demons or saints when people do as Harmse did, because:
instead of reflecting on what they did in terms of simple or more typical motivations like anger, attention-seeking, and alienation, they may now start thinking more about nonsense metaphysics, and that could potentially lead them to further confusion and irrationality down the road.
So, a brief report back from Monday’s meeting of the task team, which I ended up chairing the bulk of when Mr. Njobe, the regular chair, had to leave early. First, context: this charter on rights and responsibilities is not aimed at changing what schools teach. As much as that needs attention, in that schools routinely violate the National Policy on Religion in Education, it falls outside our mandate.
What the charter aims to speak to is the conduct of religious organisations who work with schoolchildren in educational settings – so, religious organisations who speak at assemblies, run youth-preparedness classes, host summer camps and the like.
Second, for those interested in process, we’re going to workshop the draft we came up with on Monday by email, before meeting again in January. The draft that comes out of that will be the subject of consultation with interested parties in all Provinces. Then, the document goes to the Minister of Basic Education, before being discussed at a national consultative conference, scheduled for 12 February 2015. I’ll post updates on Synapses, and also on Twitter.
Lastly, some snippets of news on how the day’s proceedings went: firstly, I was rather alarmed to find that the draft document we had in front of us referred to “the existing South African Charter of Religious Rights and Freedoms” as a foundational document, and also quoted this charter extensively. Given that the charter in question has never been adopted officially, and is also a completely bonkers document, this seemed rather unfortunate.
However, I’m very pleased to report that once I informed the group that the document a) had no standing, and (b) was quite mad, it was quickly dropped in its entirety, as were the bulk of the quotes from it that had made their way into our document.
Then, the group was very supportive of a number of crucial insertions into the text that I proposed, which I’ll simply list:
frequent insertions of language referring not only to those of different faiths, but also to those who don’t have any interest in faith-based activities
the stipulation that parents need to consult with their children before putting them into or taking them out of faith-based activities
the rejection of any kind of proscription against blaspemy
that the right to “religious dignity” in no way prohibits robust debate and criticism
forbidding religious organisations from seeking financial support, or recruiting membership, from learners
and lastly, encouraging critical and free debate on matters of faith
There are also all sorts of problematic things that we agreed to delete from the draft charter, that I’ll not list here. These sorts of documents are never perfect, but as the saying goes, we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And in sum, I think we had a good day, and I look forward to continued involvement with the project.
Even though Ivo Vegter might be slightly less than gruntled to be spoken of alongside Error Naidoo, the homophobic and very paranoid man of God, the title of this post (from Naidoo’s latest rant) happens to fit them both.
It fits Naidoo simply because it’s his line, verbatim, and follows his taking note of the “athiest groups [that] are growing bolder and more aggressive in their diabolical quest to eradicate Christianity from public life in South Africa”, in this case by trying to ensure that publicly-funded schools are secular.
It fits Vegter more loosely, mostly a) because it sounds like something Ayn Rand might have said; b) Vegter is an unapologetic libertarian; and c), because his most recent Daily Maverick column, on regulating complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs), rejects State oversight of CAMs in favour of people deciding for themselves which risks they would like to take and which not when it comes to their healthcare.
The above summary (in its brevity, rather than due to misrepresentation) doesn’t do his argument justice, so please do read his column. The one note that is essential for accuracy, though, is that he is open to other regulatory bodies stepping in, perhaps a “private, voluntary and competitive” scheme.
As is typical for Vegter, his argument is consistent and well laid-out, so even if you disagree with him, you’ll find much to ponder when reading the column.
As I noted in a comment to that column, my concern is that his perspective is either insufficiently agent-neutral, in that it privileges those of us who are more able to make informed healthcare choices, or that it indicates a moral stance I don’t support – namely that those who make poor healthcare choices will eventually learn to make better choices, but via their mistakes (which might well involve suffering, and death).
A private, voluntary and competitive regulator doesn’t reassure my concerns on the agent-neutrality point, in that if it’s voluntary, you need to know about it and sign up to it, which immediately leaves some folk out of the safety net, and allows for producers to opt-out also.
It also opens the door for competing regulatory bodies – and yes, while the market might eventually result in one being trusted above all others, the interregnum before that happens exposes people to risk. And at the end of the day, nobody is going to do this for free, so it’s not obvious that it will make medicines more affordable than a State-subsidised regulatory process does.
Private regulators cropping up to ensure that your food is Halal or Kosher are not good analogies, to my mind – nobody dies if they accidentally eat some pork. There’s more at stake with medicine, so our standards need to be higher. For me that means a central regulatory body, where the interesting questions become whether it’s good at its job, and if not, how to make it better.
Except, of course, if you think that people don’t need that sort of nannying, and that we will learn who to trust (in terms of medical providers) through taking bad or ineffective medicine, and suffering the consequences of our mistakes. Some of us will avoid misfortune through hearing through word of mouth, radio, newspaper and the like of what to avoid, but others- especially rural poor, with educational disadvantages – would be particularly vulnerable to snake-oil salespeople who care only for profit, not others’ health.
In cases like these, some easily-identifiable and consistent stamp of authority, that a central regulator provides, seems a useful thing to have. Rejecting such a body seems to involve an idealism about the market, and about human capacity for avoiding tragic errors, that aren’t borne out in history. Hence Vegter’s argument, while logical, involves a moral commitment that I shy away from.
Briefly, on to Error Naidoo, who is most agitated about OGODs lawsuit against 6 schools that speak of having a “Christian character”, hold regular Christian prayers and so forth. As I’ve written in the past, this might contravene existing policy, and more to the point, paying lip-service to secularism in schools can still leave many children ostracised (and indoctrinated).
Naidoo is in “good” company here, as Afriforum have offered to help cover court costs for the schools that are the subject of this lawsuit. I feel for all my sensible Christian friends, who must be cringing at the thought of white racists rushing to defend the Christian values of the schools in question. Anyway, here’s Naidoo, unplugged, unedited, and perhaps a little unhinged.
The obvious objective of the athiest group, “Organisasie vir Godsdienste-Onderrig en Demokrasie” is to eradicate all Christian activity at state run schools. Humanists want education all for themselves.
Although a small minority, athiest groups are growing bolder and more aggressive in their diabolical quest to eradicate Christianity from public life in South Africa. Man is then free to reign as god.
What you may not realise is that secular humanism is a religion! And what athiests are actually advocating is replacing Christianity with the godless and bankrupt ideology of secular humanism as the most dominant religion in SA. Incidentally, They already control politics, the media and academia.
A culture war is currently raging in SA society. Two conflicting worldviews are engaged in a life or death struggle for the hearts and minds of people. Victory is assured for the courageous and the committed.
On one side of the battlefield are advocates of the Biblical Christian Worldview with its message of service and submission to an all powerful God. On the other side are the secular humanists whose ultimate goal is to abolish all acknowledgement & recognition of God from the national psyche.
Significantly, apathy and disunity in the Christian Church has emboldened atheist groups, sexual rights activists and other anti-family radicals in South Africa. The Church’s silence amplifies their voice.
Somebody desperately needs to sound the alarm in the Christian Church in SA. The enemy is united, committed and well-resourced. And they have a cunning plan to control and dominate society.
It’s important for all of us – whether religious or not – to defend the secular viewpoint in public institutions, law and policy. For one, because secularism means that you will never be forced to attend or participate in the ceremonies or practices of religions other than your own.
Defenders of religious expression sometimes forget the fact that often, it’s only contingently the case that you’re defending the expression of a religion you happen to belong to, and that this coincidence can’t be guaranteed. If your neighbourhood school were over time to evolve into one of a different faith, you might suddenly wish for the school to be stubbornly secular.
A second reason to defend secularity, at least in my view, is because a secular environment is well suited to fostering free and rational choice and taking responsibility for our choices, as I argued in this column defending the rights of children to wear religious headgear at public schools. It’s clearer to see the relationship between our beliefs and our actions if we aren’t forced – not matter how implicitly – to perform certain actions.
Secular does not need to mean (in fact, ideally would not mean) hostility towards religious expression. It would mean neutrality, while allowing for the free expression of religious belief so long as that expression accorded with the Constitution and any other relevant law.
South Africa has a mostly superb framework ensuring secularism in our public schools. I’ve written about aspects of this before, but a recent email correspondence with a friend regarding the school her son attends offers an opportunity to highlight what I have reason to believe is a fairly common occurrence – namely, public schools ignoring the explicitly secular (but tolerant) National Policy on Religion in Education.
The case in point is Glenstantia Primary, who approved a new policy on religion in September 2012 (citing the Constitution, the National Policy on Religion and Education and other documents as references). Despite name-checking the National Policy, the “Governing Body of this school decided that Glenstantia Primary shall be a Christian based school” – which can’t avoid but create an impression of bias rather than neutrality towards not only religion, but more importantly, a specific religion.
Pierre de Vos has previously argued that statements like “this school has a Christian character” might well be contraventions of Section 15 of the Constitution, as well as the Schools Act, both of which allow for religious expression, but only on an “equitable basis”. As de Vos points out, our Constitutional Court has shied away from ruffling any feathers in judgements on this issue, partly because some wiggle-room is afforded them through the limitations clause.
However, if a group of parents were to ask the Department of Basic Education to account for their numerous failures to enforce the Policy, I’d expect a similar outcome to the one achieved by Vashti McCollum in 1948, when the US Supreme Court agreed that calling religious observances “voluntary” could cover up a multitude of sins.
As the majority opinion in that case states, “both religion and government can best work to achieve their lofty aims if each is left free from the other within its respective sphere”. At Glenstantia, calling the school “Christian” already makes someone who believes in something else, or nothing, feels like an outsider. But the violations of the policy don’t stop there.
Clause 3.3 insists that the Bible is read at all “assemblies and school gatherings”, and then 3.4 insists that all pupils have to attend these events where hymns are sung and prayers said. You need not participate – but then you need a letter from your parents excusing you.
There are two clear problems in this: first that there’s nothing “equitable” about how religions are treated here, and second, a non-religious child in a religious family is either forced to lie (through participating in a charade) or forced into a very difficult confession of non-faith to a potentially hostile family.
In this sort of situation, who would blame the scholar for not simply taking the easy route, succumbing to peer, school and family pressure through pretending to be religious? For institutions like schools that are meant to teach the ability to think, be independent and so forth, this doesn’t seem a good start. Neither is it a good start in a life of Christian virtue, if you’re attracted to the faith via a subtle form of bullying.
The school has an obligation to support the National Policy, rather than make pupils and parents jump through hoops to ensure that they are not discriminated against. Clause 3.5 says that “other persuasions will be respected”, but when “every school day begins with a prayer and/or a reading of a portion of the Bible” (3.6), it’s difficult to take that pledge of respect seriously.
There is more, but the point is by now clear – one can speak of tolerance and equitable treatment of religions (and the non-religious), but get away with nothing more than paying lip-service to that equitable treatment. This is not only the grouching of an atheist, but a concern that should be shared by every Muslim, or Jewish, or whatever, parent that has a child at a school like Glenstantia.
The point of secular provisions such as the National Policy is that they protect us all from undue influence to toe a particular line, allowing for free expression of whatever beliefs you have, regardless of how fashionable, popular, or government-endorsed they are. We’re all free to believe what we like, and to engage in whatever religious practices we like – or not to, as the case may be.
Either way, it doesn’t have to be anyone else’s business other than yours. If you want to start and end your day with a prayer, go ahead. But why should doing so be forced on other people’s children, or made everyone (anyone) else’s business?
While South Africa’s Constitution attracts justified praise for its commitment to preserving various freedoms, we should remain vigilant in our defence of the rights it affords us, and consistent in our engagement with the responsibilities that correlate with those rights. When proposed legislation threatens to chill free speech, it’s appropriate for us to use that freedom to challenge measures such as the POI bill. In the absence of such vigilance, the Constitution could end up with little more than symbolic value.