No beliefs are above any others

A pupil was sent home from a Christian school for wearing isiphandla, a traditional goat hide wristband.
A pupil was sent home from a Christian school for wearing isiphandla, a traditional goat hide wristband.
Image: Gallo Images/iStockphoto

Last Thursday, the Christian Life private school in Johannesburg sent a letter to the parents of one of its pupils telling them the child was not allowed to wear isiphandla at school.

As an item rooted in ancestral beliefs, the traditional wrist band was not permitted in a school that subscribes exclusively to Christianity, it said.

In the letter, the school pastor Lindsey Lefebure was emphatic in the belief that communication with ancestors was forbidden and abhorred by God and therefore went against the school's ethos.

As a result, the little boy was asked to stay at home while his parents wanted him to wear isiphandla.

There are two important things to note here. First, while the school extensively expressed its spiritual reasons for not allowing symbols of African culture to be worn by its pupils, it is unclear whether this prohibition is explicitly stated in the school's policy and understood by all parents before enrolling their children at the school.

The boy's parents said they signed no code of conduct that prohibited the wearing of isiphandla. Had they known this was not allowed, they would not have enrolled their child at the school.

Second, and perhaps most fundamental, is that even if such a policy existed, its directives would have to be subjected to the constitution, the supreme law of the land which equally protects the rights of children to practice their cultural beliefs.

Indeed, we acknowledge that the school has a right to subscribe to and practice its religious beliefs. These may even include holding a view against African cultures.

But the school's rights are not open-ended and cannot be used to discriminate against the rights of its pupils to practise their beliefs.

The wearing of isiphandla may indeed offend the comforts of school masters who hold different beliefs. However, that is not a sufficient reason for the school to summarily outlaw the expression of the beliefs of others, especially when such expression is not in itself an infringement of anyone's rights.

Allowing such discrimination not only undermines our constitution, it is a slippery slope to a society that legitimises one set of beliefs over others.

It must not be allowed.

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