March 27, 2023


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Government clamping down on absenteeism and language policies at schools in South Africa

The Department of Basic Education has tabled the draft Basic Education Laws Amendment (BELA) bill in parliament.

The bill, which was first announced in 2017, seeks to provide updated amendments to sections of the South African Schools Act. This includes stricter rules around student attendance, admissions and language policies.

Some of the key proposals in the bill are outlined in more detail below.

School attendance 

The bill aims to make school attendance compulsory from grade R. It also proposes stricter punishments for parents who fail to ensure their children attend school, including jail time and/or a fine of up to 12 months.

The bill will further make it an offence where any person unlawfully and intentionally interrupts, disturbs or hinders any school activity, or hinders or obstructs any school in the performance of the school’s activities.

“The latter amendment is necessitated by incidents, in several provinces, in which communities, or portions of communities, prevented learners from attending school in an attempt at making political or other points,” the department said.


The bill states that teachers, principals and school governing bodies must take responsibility and accountability for learners that are within their school community by ascertaining the whereabouts of a learner who is absent from school for a period of more than three days without a valid reason.

“The principal, upon receiving a report from the educator that the learner is absent without valid reason, must within 24 hours investigate the matter by making a reasonable effort to contact the parents to ascertain the reason as to why the learner is not present at school,” the department said.

“Furthermore, the principal has a responsibility to report the matter to the school governing body for further intervention.”


Under the bill, a public school must admit and provide education to learners and must serve their educational requirements for the duration of their school attendance without unfairly discriminating in any way.

To ensure that no learner is discriminated against in any way, the bill provides for the establishment of the National Intergovernmental Committee and the Provincial Intergovernmental Committee, the main purpose of which will be to provide assistance to schools in obtaining the required documentation for those learners who are admitted without such documentation.

Language changes 

The bill state that a school governing body must submit the language policy of a public school, and any amendments, to the head of the department for approval.

As is the case with the admission policy, the school governing body must review the language policy at certain intervals, or under certain conditions. Schools can also be instructed to adopt more than one language of instruction by the head of the department.

The bill also aims to include the South African Sign Language as an official language for purposes of learning at a public school.

Search and seizure

The bill makes it clear that a school has the right to search an individual learner and not only a group of learners.

“This amendment is necessitated by the fact that learners have increasingly been found in possession of, or abusing, liquor and a variety of drugs, dependence-producing substances, performance-enhancing substances and the like and that there are many cases of learners being expelled because of such abuses,” the department said.

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Government clamping down on absenteeism and language policies at schools in South Africa