Eusebius McKaiser: A school’s Christian ethos doesn’t justify prejudice

You would have thought that one thing the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 might teach us all is that life is too unpredictable and short to waste time on prejudice. But old habits die hard.

One example is the appalling prejudicial behaviour of Christian Life Private School, an independent school in Johannesburg. They barred a nine-year-old grade 2 learner from entering the school premises because he was wearing isiphandla (a cultural wristband typically made from goatskin). 

In a bizarre but revealing letter to his parents, they argue that “the wearing of this band … brings with it a belief in the protection of the ancestors, which is contradictory to [their] belief in the Blood of Jesus and His victory on the cross of Calvary”. They bolster this view by saying God forbids any communication with one’s ancestors because this “denies Him as the Sovereign Creator and Living God”. 

The actions and attitudes of the school are both constitutionally and ethically dubious.

It is interesting that this is a private rather than a public school. How much weight should we place on that fact? We might think of private schools similarly to how we think of the private sphere generally. We recognise that the public sphere requires more of an emphasis on our collective common good than does the private sphere. 

But there is not one democracy in the world that regards the mere classification of an institution as private as ending an inquiry into what is legally and ethically permissible. Sure, we should be more comfortable controlling what happens in public schools than in private schools, but this does not imply that the state has no legitimate public interest in any regulation of private schools. 

The fundamental values of the Constitution cannot be trampled on just because a violation happens in an institution that has the word “independent” or “private” in its name. Children’s rights to dignity and equality are moral claims they can make against all schools, public and private. Therefore, the status of Christian life as a private school only marginally colours this discussion. On its own, this singular fact does not let the school off the constitutional hook.

An instructive Constitutional Court case is the 2008 Pillay judgment. In that case, the court found that Durban Girls’ High School had discriminated against Sunali Pillay by not allowing her to wear a nose stud to school. The stud was an important part of her cultural identity and expression based on her family’s South Indian, Tamil, Hindu heritage.

The school authorities claimed, among other things, that if Sunali was to be allowed to wear a nose stud, it would have to allow others to do the same. They feared a slippery slope scenario in which other pupils may demand to not wear school uniform, to wear their hair as they want to and to generally ignore the school code of conduct, which all parents are aware of. They also claimed (without evidence) that ill-discipline would result if they allowed Sunali to wear a nose stud. Finally, they argued that they have a right to have their authority deferred to by the courts, because they alone are responsible for the rules of the school.

The Constitutional Court dealt clinically with these intuitively decent but ultimately unconvincing buffet of status quo-defensiveness. The court recognised and affirmed the right of the school to come up with a general code of conduct. But it directed the school to come up with clear rules that also allow for the “reasonable accommodation” of deviations from a general code of conduct. 

If the “reasonable accommodation” rules are based on fairness, then two consequences will follow: one is that pupils and parents who want to abuse the exemptions procedures will not be able to do so (for example, demanding to not wear school uniform is patently unlike a fair request to have your cultural heritage accommodated), and a family will not have to choose between cultural identity and an educational institution for their child. 

Each case can be dealt with on its merits and the slippery slope worry is just an expression of moral panic. That is why the Constitutional Court also declared Durban Girls’ High School to have discriminated unfairly against the pupil.

The same analysis must go for Christian Life Private School. Allowing a learner to follow a sincerely held cultural belief and expression does not undermine the authority and ethos of the school. The school should maintain its general code but develop a policy for how to determine, fairly, exemptions that are reasonable.

The facts of this particular case also count in favour of the family rather than the school. The first is that the boy’s family is deeply committed to Christianity. That was a critical reason they chose to enrol their boy at this school. His grandfather is an Anglican bishop, and they did not want to send their boy to a state school precisely because they want him to be raised Christian. This family exemplifies the values and ethos of this school.

They even agreed with the school that their son should wear long-sleeved shirts to hide isiphandla. It is mind-boggling that the school, who came up with this creative compromise, changed its mind without even discussing this with the parents. The family had consented to the compromise because of their appreciation of the school’s Christian values, which mirror their own.

Second, the school never asked the family what the wristband means for them. They made assumptions about “ancestral worship” and imputed these to the family. The letter sent to the family, which is making the round on social media, is based on falsehoods about where this cultural wristband fits into the family’s worldview. 

It turns out the school’s assumptions are factually flawed. I spoke to the family and they made it clear that isiphandla has cultural identity significance only and no religious importance. The child had taken on his Zulu father’s surname and, following a cultural ritual marking the importance of that event, he will wear this wristband until it falls off, a tradition connecting him to his father’s family. Is an omnibenevolent God so petty that He doesn’t want a child to celebrate getting closer to his father’s family? I wonder whether the God of Christian Life Private School is one that Christians everywhere would recognise.

At any rate, the Constitutional Court is instructive here. In the Pillay case, Justice Pius Langa said religious rights and cultural rights must be separated, and that both matters. The school’s right to develop a code of conduct with general application cannot impinge upon the rights of the child, especially if there are less restrictive ways the school can achieve the purpose of a school code of conduct. 

For example, as the high court explained even more elegantly than the Constitutional Court, if Durban Girls’ High School worried about a slippery slope, it simply needed to take the opportunity to teach tolerance and diversity to its pupils, and to explain why the accommodation of the cultural rights of the teenager did not mean that no rules would apply. The school missed an opportunity to teach progressive values.

Christian Life Private School is also missing an opportunity for a learning moment. Instead of teaching children that God is jealous of diverse cultural expressions, why not bring the family in to show a deep commitment to diversity in a country like ours? Would that not be consistent with the value of love that surely is central to Christianity?  

Last, it is lazy to say that parents should not send their children to schools that have inflexible rules. Why must we insist on leaving schools alone rather than asking tough questions about how to transform all schools into places that produce citizens who are imbued with the values of our Constitution even if they are raised with a bias in favour of this or that religion or culture? 

What is especially embarrassing about this case is that the discrimination is against a fellow Christian and not against someone who distances themselves from Christianity. Which also made me wonder, as an agnostic, whether this school has denominational prejudices. That, too, would be a shame because there is diversity of thought among Christians that should be celebrated, not discouraged.  

The nine-year-old is at home, and has been crying, confused about why he cannot go to school. How can the leaders of Christian Life Private School possibly regard that as best Christian practice? Do they want this boy to remember the day he made news headlines because a Christian school was unloving and intolerant? That reminds one of the chequered histories of the civilising colonial missionary project.

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