By Pearl Nicodemus and Katherine Sutherland
Should the Department of Basic Education pass this amendment, it will not only be failing its legal obligation to protect learners from the dangers of alcohol abuse, but it will be proactively assisting in the promotion of underage drinking.
The 2022 Basic Education Laws Amendment (Bela) Bill seeks to empower school governing bodies to allow the possession, consumption or sale of liquor during school activities, both on and off the school premises, on application from any person and in consultation with the provincial HoD, provided this does not happen during school hours. The amendment provides for a few safeguards, but not nearly enough to ensure the safety of learners at school functions where alcohol is being consumed.
In their joint submissions made to Parliament, civil society organisations called for a blanket ban on the presence of alcohol on school grounds or during school activities, except for educational purposes. Research shows that access to alcohol in communities is heavily linked to crime and school violence, so it should go without saying that learners must be protected from interactions with those under the influence, as well as from consuming alcohol themselves. Equal Education (EE) learner members (Equalisers) have expressed concerns that the consumption and sale of alcohol on school premises will threaten their safety. In surveys conducted by EE in Western Cape schools, principals and safety officers have said that the prevalence of drugs and alcohol in their schools pose significant threats to safety in the schooling environment.
The argument that schools must be alcohol-free zones is not only one of logic, but one that is embedded in law and policy. The Constitution compels government to accord paramountcy to the best interests of children when deciding on any matter that affects them. The National Strategy for the Prevention and Management of Alcohol and Drug Use Amongst Learners in Schools, in no uncertain terms, requires schools to be alcohol and drug-free zones. This is reiterated in the Regulations for the Safety Measures at Public Schools, as well as the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE) National School Safety Framework. Further, learner safety is an intrinsic part of the right to basic education. The DBE itself notes that alcohol use by learners has been linked to “academic difficulties, absenteeism, and dropping out, which can have important implications for a learner’s access to quality education”. Should the DBE pass this amendment, it will not only be failing its legal obligation to protect learners from the dangers of alcohol abuse, but it will be proactively assisting in the promotion of underage drinking.
South Africa is a nation ravaged by alcohol abuse and the societal ills that result from it. As confirmed by AfriCheck in 2017, the country has the highest levels of alcohol consumption on the continent at 10-12% and is sixth highest in the world. Over 60% of road deaths, domestic violence incidents and homicides are directly or indirectly related to alcohol consumption and harmful alcohol use. Alcohol also has the potential to influence risky sexual behaviour among adolescents and makes them vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections, unintended pregnancy, and worst of all, sexual violence.
So, it is perplexing how this is an argument that needs to be made given the crisis of underage drinking in the country. In a study published in the African Journal of Primary Healthcare and Medicine, aimed at investigating drinking patterns and factors that contribute to drinking amongst secondary school learners in South Africa, results indicated that 35.5% of male and 29.7% of female respondents used alcohol and both male and female respondents had engaged in binge drinking within 30 days. Research done by the World Health Organization (WHO) also shows that the availability of alcohol to underage persons under different circumstances, such as alcoholic families or communities, parental permissiveness, poverty and peer pressure fuels adolescent alcohol use. Therefore, of the myriad of wars currently waged to better South Africa’s basic education sector, the provisional sale of alcohol at schools should not be one of them.
That there exists a clause in the Bill that seeks to provide conditions where liquor may be possessed, consumed or sold on school premises or during school activities indicates a broader crisis in South Africa. One justification behind the amendment is “that alcohol has a place in our society, if it is consumed responsibly, by adults and by the fact that events at which alcohol is present form an important part of the fundraising activities of most schools.” School fundraising is important and can significantly contribute to a school’s ability to create an effective learning and teaching environment. However, this line of reasoning does not take into account the context that schools are in, especially vulnerable under-resourced schools in under-resourced areas. Rather than putting the safety of learners at risk for the purposes of increased school fundraising, the DBE and provincial education departments (PEDs) should ensure that schools have enough resources by cracking down on wasteful and irregular expenditure, as well as ensuring the equitable distribution of school resources.
To refer, once again, to the words that the President uttered at the funeral held for the 21 teenagers who died in the Enyobeni Tavern tragedy: “There is blame that has to be laid . . . from the national government — there is blame on us. For the provincial government, from the local government. Blame must be laid at the feet of those who are making money off the dreams and lives of young people”.
This article was first published in the Daily Maverick