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Maritzburg College Students' Choice Of Political Affiliation Is Their Decision To Make

Should they have made this political statement at school or even in their school uniform? The answer is possibly no.

17/10/2017 03:59 SAST | Updated 17/10/2017 06:28 SAST
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Maritzburg College students.

We've seen the furore caused by the young men from Pietermaritzburg College in KwaZulu-Natal, who displayed their support for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) seemingly on school property while in school uniform.

Despite the back and forth by some of the prominent "old boys" of the prestigious school about the merits or demerits of the boys' choice of association, what remains key is that they have a right to that choice.

We have taught our young people that our democracy is something worth celebrating and that it should be their democratic right and democratic responsibility to take an interest in the trajectory of the country and the importance of their right to a vote. We teach our young people of the sacrifices that so many before us have made in order for them to be allowed to have that vote.

These are three young men who are about to enter the workforce or to go off and study further in a society where their peers face a number of challenges - the youth unemployment rate is sitting at 27.1 percent. They are important role players in the country going forward, and yet there are those who are suggesting that they should not have a say in their own future, or have an opinion about the political landscape of the country?

Now should they have made this political statement at school or even in their school uniform, the answer is possibly no. The South African Schools Act (SASA) is clear around political activities at school, however, I must add during school time...

In Chapter 3, section 33A of SASA reads as follows:

"Prohibition of political activities during school time. (1) No party-political activities may be conducted at a school during school time determined by the governing body of the school in terms of section 20 (1) (f). (2) The party-political activities contemplated in subsection (1) include, but are not limited to (a) campaigning; (b) the conducting of rallies; (c) the distribution of pamphlets and fliers; and (d) the hanging or putting up of posters and banners. (3) A member of a political party may not, for the purposes of conducting party-political activities, encroach on the school time. (4) A school may not allow the display of material of a party-political nature on its premises unless such party-political material is related to the curriculum at the school. [S. 33A inserted by s. 11 of Act No. 15 of 2011.]"

After school hours, these learners are allowed to support any political party of their choosing, and the constitution of the country gives them the right to freedom of association.

The reason for this is that we do not want a situation where teaching and learning are interrupted or derailed by political campaigning. We want our schools to be free of such activities that can distract from the education of our young people, by teachers, learners or outsiders.

However after school hours, these learners are allowed to support any political party of their choosing, and the constitution of the country gives them the right to freedom of association. The same SASA also says that schools should act in the best interest of the learners, and instituting disciplinary action for sharing a political view just before they write their final National Senior Certificate examinations is not in their best interest. This in no way condones misconduct when it occurs, but the punishment should fit the crime.

In the same vein, we also encourage democracy education in our schools and want a situation where learners are given a voice through a democratic process, such as the Representative Council of Learners (RCL). This is a mechanism where learners engage with democratic processes. Even if they are not aligned to traditional political organisations it is still a democratic and essentially political process.

The comments by those who were offended by the boys' stance are disingenuous. Yes perhaps we don't agree with their choice of political affiliation, I know I don't, but it is their decision to make. I am hoping that through the education system these young men will understand the importance of their democratic right to freedom of association and to their right to vote.

The English cricketer who tweeted "What the hell", and "Total disrespect for a once GREAT school! Are you joking?!?!" in my humble opinion has no respect for our great constitution. To feel that the association to a particular school should take away your right to freedom of association because it offends the sensibilities of some old boys is ridiculous.

I've seen comments on social media of a similar vein that suggest that these boys should focus on their education and not worry about politics. In my humble opinion, this completely undermines the political currency and legitimacy that these boys have a right to, and are boldly taking ownership of.

It is young people who will determine the future of this country and to try to suppress them would be to the detriment of our own healthy democracy.

Should the school request that they refrain from their political campaigning at school -- yes, should they face disciplinary action for their political statement? Absolutely not. The same school that has now initiated disciplinary action against these boys, failed to act against a learner who used the K-word at the school. This for me smacks of double standards. It is encouraging that the Provincial Education Department has initiated a probe into alleged racism at the school.

Disciplining learners for having a political opinion is just not on. Also, any disciplinary action taken against these boys now would be pointless and just to appease those who have been put out by their actions, because in less than a week they will be writing their final examinations and will be out of the school in any case.

The outrage we have seen on social media and heard on talk radio stations just because these young men exercised their democratic right to political affiliation is completely unwarranted and pointless. I think we should commend young people who are ready and willing to play an active role in our society and take an active interest in the future of this country.

Rather have a discussion with them if you disagree with their choices, find out why they feel the way they do and try to convince them through discussion and dialogue if your political opinions are different. Anything else would be tantamount to dictating what they should be allowed to think and feel and an attempt to rob them of their democratic rights. It is young people who will determine the future of this country and to try to suppress them would be to the detriment of our own healthy democracy.

Troy Martens is the spokesperson for the Minister of Basic Education.