Recent incidents at the Pretoria High School for Girls, Sans Souci High in Cape Town, the Saint Michael’s School for Girls in Bloemfontein, as well as others, have sparked a public outcry after black female pupils came forward to relate stories of how they were singled out because of their hair, while others complained of being taken to task because they spoke in their mother tongue on school premises.
In particular, the SAHRC noted allegations of differential treatment regarding language and hairstyles, as well as, allegations of the use of derogatory and racist comments against black pupils by both teachers and fellow pupils.
The commission is mandated to promote the protection, development, and attainment of human rights, including the rights of children and the right to equality and to monitor and assess the
observance of such rights.
In a statement, the SAHRC said: “The Constitution guarantees that everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law. Equality, as envisaged by the
Constitution, includes the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms.”
The commission has stipulated that under the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (PEPUDA), discrimination is prohibited on the grounds of race, gender, ethnic or
social origin, colour, culture, and language, amongst others.
The act also prohibits “the exclusion of persons of particular race under any rule or practice that appears to be legitimate, but which is actually aimed at maintaining exclusive control by a particular race group,” the SAHRC confirmed.
“With regard to the alleged discriminatory practices against black pupils in schools, the right to dignity should be of paramount importance to all schools, teachers, principals, administrators and school governing bodies,” the SAHRC added.
In a 2008 judgment, the Constitutional Court found that the constitution required the community to affirm and reasonably accommodate differences, not merely to tolerate it as a last resort. The Court further noted: “Our constitution does not tolerate diversity as a necessary evil, but affirms it as one of the primary treasures of our nation.”
In this judgement, the late Chief Justice Pius Langa noted that conduct by persons in authority over a pupil, which causes the child to feel guilty or embarrassed about their religion, not only affects the child’s dignity, but may also create intolerance within the child for religions different from their own.
“The recent allegations of discrimination provide an opportunity for the schools concerned and for other schools to review their Codes of Conduct to ensure that they protect the basic rights of learners, deepen understanding, and increase tolerance, respect, and protection for all in the school community,” the SAHRC said.
The Commission was of the view that schools had a clear obligation to adopt reasonable measures to avoid painful psychological and sometimes traumatic impact on pupils.
The Commission further lauded the swift intervention of the Gauteng MEC for Education, Panyaza Lesufi, in launching a probe into alleged racist practices at Pretoria High School for Girls.