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Private religious schools head to court over pupil wearing isiphandla

Published Jan 13, 2022

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On Wednesday, January 19, the Johannesburg High Court, sitting as an Equality Court, will hear the matter on whether private religious schools can require pupils and parents to abide by their agreements to conform and hold to the school’s religious policies and rules.

This comes after a Gauteng private Christian school refused to allow an isiZulu-speaking pupil to attend school while wearing a traditional ceremonial goat-skin bracelet called an isiphandla.

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This bracelet commemorates a ceremony that connects a young person to their ancestors and is traditionally worn until it breaks off from the wrist.

According to reports, the school argues that the wearing of an isiphandla is a religious practice and part of traditional African beliefs, which conflicts with the school’s biblical ethos and beliefs.

The school temporarily sent the learner home with learning material so that he could continue his studies until the moment the bracelet fell off naturally, as required by Zulu custom and beliefs.

The pupil’s parents say the school unfairly discriminated against their son on grounds of culture and have taken the matter to court, asking the school to pay R300 000 in damages. Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) is an amicus curiae (friend of the court) in the matter.

Should the court decide “no” on the matter, the case will have major ramifications for the autonomy of all private religious schools (whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, etc.) and their rights to establish admission and related policies specific to their faith, beliefs and ethos.

“Although wearing an isiphandla would certainly be allowed in public schools, private religious schools are very different because they are specifically established to provide education within the context of certain religious beliefs, practices, and ethos. Parents, learners and staff join these schools precisely for this reason”, says FOR SA’s Executive Director, Michael Swain.

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“Should the court decide against the school, it would set a dangerous precedent for all private religious schools in the country, who could then be forced to act against their religious convictions and beliefs. This would completely undermine the very reason for these schools’ existence and goes directly against the constitutional right to establish and maintain private religious schools (section 29(3)) read with sections 15, 16 and 31 of the Constitution.”

The case expected to be heard virtually.

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