The foundational principle of a pluralistic society which is the basis of our public education fundamentals is threated the moment public schools impose sectarian beliefs.
Though the constitution of Botswana prides itself in social inclusion, multi-culturalism, humanitarianism and pluralism recent incidences of discrimination on the basis of sexual conduct or orientation and religious/cultural conduct clearly demonstrate Botswana’s public schools’ contempt for a functional social pluralism. Of late two incidences have made this significantly clear. The case of a female Rastafarian student who has constantly suffered harassment, humiliation and being ostracised by the school administration as published in the Gazette newspaper of 17th May 2017 brings such contempt for a functioning multi-cultural and pluralistic education system into focus. First the school’s strong headedness flies in the face of reason and justice in that public schools’ Prospectus must conform to the underlying principles of the Children’s Act. Article 7 a) of the act states that:
No decision or action shall be taken whose result or likelihood is to discriminate against any child on the basis of sex, family, colour, race, ethnicity, place of origin, language, religion, economic status, parents, physical or mental status, or any other status…
We are told the school insists that the student has transgressed its non-academic regulation that prohibits students from donning fancy hair styles such as dreadlocks. This is so even after the parents have painstakingly explained to the school that:
1) The child’s case does not fall within the prohibitions of the school prospectus as her’s isn’t a hair style choice but a religious/cultural conduct and orientation.
2) To ask the student to cut off her dreadlocks would be a narcissistic violation of her humanitarian, religious and cultural identity.
3) Were the student to be stripped naked of her religious and cultural identity that would grossly affect her psychologically and academically.
4) The school has failed to demonstrate reasonably that by living her religion and culture and expressing it the student has made the management of the school impossible.
According to the parents all that the school management seek to present is that the student must follow the school regulations as expressed in the prospectus without question or else ship out. The management we are told contends that were the student to be allowed to live her culture and express her identity she would be a bad influence to others.
Evidence points to the student having been with the school for two terms. A question that immediately begs an answer is; why has the school failed to demonstrate its assertion until now?
We must understand that within the school system or the school itself, there are a host of competing understandings of what is morally acceptable in society and that this is the essence of a functioning pluralistic society. With this in mind the school system must continuously and consistently strive to maintain and uphold an environment of social inclusivity that is sensitive to contemporary society’s moral dynamics. Otherwise, the public education system fails to be pluralistic the minute that it seeks to impose contentious moral or sectarian beliefs on the students and in the process breeds generations of religious and cultural intolerance.
Another incident occurred recently in one of the Serowe schools where a student was discriminated on the basis of her sexual orientation. Contemporary Botswana must be alive to the rights of transgender people and can least afford to discriminate its youth on the basis of such orientation or sexuality. It is simply inappropriate for Botswana to seek to uphold principles of inclusive public education while in our public schools children are daily discriminated against.
The school system needs to understand and appreciate the role of the family as the primary educator of the child and that the family delegates that role to the public school system when the child becomes of school going age. Therefore, every approach to sexuality and religious/cultural education by the school system must flow from the foundation set by the family if there is to be meaningful education given to our children. In light of this, the school ought to support the parents’ primary role rather than do anything, implicitly or explicitly, to denigrate it. The school culture ought to embrace the multi-culturalism and plurality of the society from which it draws its students.
Having said this, I wish to call upon government especially Ministry of Basic Education and Skills Development to sensitize school leaders, teachers and parents who sit in the school PTA boards on the significance of the founding principles of a multi-cultural and pluralistic public education system. They also have to familiarise themselves with government policies and acts such as; the Children’s Act, Education Act and Botswana’s constitution in order to guide schools when they craft individual schools’ prospectus.
*David Keagakwa is an academic. He writes in his personal capacity