The Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief


Teaching for Tolerance, and Freedom of Religion or Belief:

Register of curriculum projects and pedagogical approaches



The ICRSA RE Project





The ICRSA RE Project




Religion Education in a Human Rights Context.




South Africa.




Professor David Chidester, Director, Institute for Comparative Religion in Southern Africa (ICRSA), University of Cape Town, Rondebosch 7701, South Africa;








Religious Studies.




Not applicable.




David Chidester, “Religion Education in South Africa: Teaching and Learning about Religion, Religions, and Religious Diversity,” British Journal of Religious Education 25,4 (2003): 261-279.


David Chidester, Gordon Mitchell, Isabel Apawo Phiri, and A. Rashied Omar, Religion in Public Education: Options for a New South Africa, 2nd. ed. (Cape Town: UCT Press, 1994).




Chirevo Kwenda, Nokuzola Mndende, and Janet Stonier, African Religion and Culture Alive (Cape Town: Via Afrika, 1997).


Janet Stonier and Tracy Derrick, Sacred Places (Cape Town: Juta, 1997).


Janet Stonier, Nokuzola Mndende, A. Rashied Omar, Saraswathi S. Pillay, and Azila Reisenberger, Festivals and Celebrations (Cape Town: Juta, 1996).




Institute for Comparative Religion in Southern Africa




Launched in July 1991 with an inaugural lecture by Professor Ninian Smart (University of Lancaster; University of California, Santa Barbara), the Institute for Comparative Religion in Southern Africa (ICRSA) is a research unit of the University of Cape Town dedicated to the postcolonial study of religion and religions.  In addition to developing resources for the study of religions and reconfiguring the study of religion from a southern African perspective, ICRSA has developed applied research projects in religion education by negotiating national policy, providing materials for teachers, conducting workshops, and participating in the International Network for Interreligious and Intercultural Education.


With funding from the National Research Foundation (formerly, the Centre for Science Development), the Education Development Trust, the University Research Committee, and publications, ICRSA has undertaken two major projects:  (1) the Comparative Religion Project, which has produced a database on religions of South Africa, a three-volume annotated bibliography, a history of comparative religion in southern Africa, and case studies on the production, interpretation, and contestation of sacred space in southern Africa; (2) the Religion and Public Education Project, which has produced a widely-distributed report on policy options, a teacher-training manual, and textbooks, and has conducted pilot projects in local schools and teacher-training colleges to develop new programmes and materials for religion education.  In addition to academic and action research, ICRSA has sponsored public lectures, seminars, community workshops, and occasional publications.




In South Africa, teaching and learning about religion in public schools is a rapidly changing, exciting educational field.  South Africa is fortunate to have a Constitution, Department of Education, and Minister of Education, Professor Kader Asmal, clearly committed to advancing human rights.  Accordingly, as a matter of principle, any policy with respect to religion in school education must be consistent with constitutional values and the social imperatives of building a culture of human rights in post-apartheid South Africa.  Education about religion, in this context, is being pursued in a human rights framework. 


With respect to religion, government policy in general has adopted a “co-operative model” for relations between the many religions and the state instead of arrangements based on theocratic establishment, anti-religious antagonism, or strict separation (see Sachs, 1992).  By marking major public occasions with prayers from different religious traditions, the government has acknowledged the potential for the many religions of the country to co-operate in building one, unified South African nation.  In public education, however, the Department of Education has made a principled distinction between the many religious interests, which are best served by the home, family, and religious community, and the national public interest in education about religion, religions, and religious diversity in South Africa.  This division of labour is reflected in the Revised National Curriculum Statements published by the Department of Education during 2002:


Religion Education . . . rests on a division of responsibilities between the state on the one hand and religious bodies and parents on the other.  Religion Education, therefore, has a civic rather than a religious function, and promotes civic rights and responsibilities.  In the context of the South African Constitution, Religion Education contributes to the wider framework of education be developing in every learner the knowledge, values, attitudes and skills necessary for diverse religions to co-exist in a multi-religious society.  Individuals will realize that they are part of the broader community, and will learn to see their own identities in harmony with others. (Department of Education 2002a; 2002b).


The term “religion education” can be located in a distinctively South African history of resistance, exile, and return.  Basil Moore, who was instrumental in the publication of the first collection of essays in black theology (Moore, 1973), went into exile, studied in Britain, and eventually became Professor of Curriculum Development at the University of South Australia, where he developed guidelines for “religion education” (Moore, 1991; Moore and Habel, 1982).  Returning for an extended visit to South Africa in the early 1990s, Basil Moore renewed his religious contacts with black theologians but he also introduced his work on “religion education” to many South African educators.  The new policy of the Department of Education recalls Basil Moore’s principled distinction between the religious interests of “religious education” and the educational objectives of “religion education.”  Adopting a policy of religion education, rather than continuing earlier policies of religious instruction, the Department of Education has emphasized educational outcomes, as well as social benefits, in teaching and learning about religion, religions, and religious diversity. 


Although the department developed this principled position on educational grounds, the Minister of Education has also consulted widely with religious leaders.  In September 2002, the Minister formed a reference group of stakeholders from different religious backgrounds, the Standing Advisory Committee for Religion in Education, for ongoing consultations about the role of religion in schools.  Clearly, the policy intends no hostility to religion.  At the same time, the department recognizes the importance of including beliefs, values, and convictions not necessarily derived from religion.  For this reason, the curriculum statements have specified that religion education will include “belief systems and worldviews.”  Neither attacking nor promoting religion, religion education has been formulated as a significant part of the school subject, Life Orientation.




Against the background of a historical legacy that privileged a certain kind of Christian religious instruction in schools, the new policy of religion education has not always been understood.  In June 2001, for example, Deputy Minister of Education Mosibudi Mangena delivered a speech on the future of religion in South African public schools to the annual conference of the Students Christian Union.  Affirming both the national unity and religious diversity of South Africa, the Deputy Minister outlined the new policy for religion in education.  Simply, the policy was based not on religious interests but on constitutional values and educational objectives.  Within the constitutional framework of a democratic South Africa, the role of religion in the public schools must be consistent with core constitutional values of a common citizenship, human rights, equality, equity, freedom from discrimination and freedom of religion, conscience, thought, belief, and opinion.  On educational grounds, public schools have a responsibility to teach about religion and religions in ways that are different from the religious education, instruction, or nurture provided by the home, family, and religious community.  By contrast to the promotion of particular religious interests in the “religious education” of the past, this new policy of “religion education” advances educational goals of teaching and learning about religion, religions, and religious diversity (Mangena, 2001). 


Nothing can be said so clearly that it cannot still be misunderstood.  In an article covering the speech for The Teacher, the headline shouted provocatively, “Keep God out of the public schools, says Mangena”  (Naidu, 2001).  Of course, Deputy Minister Mangena said nothing of the sort.  Rather than making theological or atheological claims, he outlined an educational policy that was consistent with South Africa’s Constitution. 


Instead of advancing a religious (or antireligious) position, this educational policy is underwritten by crucial constitutional provisions that guarantee both the freedom for religious expression and the freedom from religious coercion.  Recognizing the vitality and diversity of religion in South Africa, which is clearly protected along with conscience, thought, belief, and opinion (15[1]), the Constitution also guarantees freedom from religious discrimination or discrimination on the basis of religion (9[3]).  Inevitably, the promotion of a particular religion, a set of religions, or a certain religious perspective involves the public schools in religious discrimination by advancing privileged religious interests and discrimination on the basis of religion by disadvantaging learners from “underprivileged” religious backgrounds.  In keeping with the provisions of the Constitution, educational policy must be dedicated not to the teaching, promotion, or propagation of religion but to teaching and learning about religion, religions, and religious diversity in South Africa and the world.  


Although the distinction between teaching of religion and teaching about religion often seems to be misunderstood in media coverage, public debates, and religious opposition to the new educational policy, international standards have increasingly been based upon recognizing the difference between the promotion of religion and education about religion.  Under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the consultative conference on religion in school education that was convened in Madrid during November 2001 took this distinction for granted.  The report prepared for that conference assumed the basic difference between teaching about religion in schools and the teaching of religion in the catechisms or theologies of religious communities.  By definition, according to this report,


Religious Education should be conceived as a tool to transmit knowledge and values pertaining to all religious trends, in an inclusive way, so that individuals realize their being part of the same community and learn to create their own identity in harmony with identities different from their own.  As such, religious education radically differs from catechism or theology, defined as the formal study of the nature of God and of the foundations of religious belief, and contributes to the wider framework of education as defined in international standards. (Amor, 2001; see Hera and Martínez de Codes, 2002)


Consistent with this definition, South Africa’s new educational policy for teaching and learning about religion is inclusive, enabling learners to explore their own identities within the diversity of South Africa.  Departing from the compulsory Christian religious indoctrination of the apartheid era, the new policy proposes educational outcomes in teaching and learning about religious diversity that promote empathetic understanding and critical reflection on religious identity and difference.  According to this new policy, religion education, supported by clear educational outcomes, curriculum statements, and assessment criteria, can serve important educational outcomes while also working to increase understanding, reduce prejudice, and expand respect for human diversity.




Religion Education represents a dramatic departure from the religious education, instruction, or indoctrination of the past.  Under the apartheid regime, with its commitment to Christian National Education, a narrow set of religious interests captured religious education.  Although all education was supposed to inculcate a Christian national ethos, religious education, assuming a Christian, Bible-based character, sought to produce distinctively religious outcomes.  Religious education was driven by a particular kind of Christian confessionalism and triumphalism, a confessionalism that required pupils to embrace prescribed religious convictions and a triumphalism that explicitly denigrated adherents of other religions.


In the old regime, religious education was directed towards compelling learners to make a confession of faith.  According to a manual for Biblical Instruction published as recently as 1990, learners were expected to embrace a particular version of Christian faith.  Not merely acquiring knowledge, “Children must personally accept, and trust for their personal salvation, the triune God introduced to them in the Bible” (Department of Didactics, 1990: 30).  Similarly, a syllabus for Religious Education asserted that the aim for the “devout teacher” was to ensure that learners, “through belief in the Holy Trinity,” were able ‘to affirm the Apostles’ Creed with sincerity and conviction” (cited Chidester, et al., 1994: 15). 


Along with these confessional interests, Religious Education and Biblical Studies under apartheid promoted a Christian triumphalism.  As the manual in Biblical Instruction insisted, “a public school must show tolerance and respect for differing doctrinal convictions, as long as there is no denial of Jesus Christ as the Messiah” (Department of Didactics, 1990: 19).  In a widely used textbook for Religious Education and Biblical Studies, this Christian triumphalism resulted in claims to a privileged religious ownership of the nation and its public schools by proclaiming that South Africa “is a Christian country and it is only right that our children be taught in the Christian faith—also in our schools.”  Abandoning any pretence of tolerance or respect for difference, the textbook asserted bluntly that a “child who follows the Christian faith is more likely to behave in a moral way than a non-Christian or an un-religious child” (Kitshoff and Van Wyk, 1995).


In a constitutional, democratic, and religiously diverse South Africa, this kind of religious education, with its indoctrination of Christian children and denigration of adherents of other religions, certainly cannot be sustained.  But what are the alternatives?  Preparing for the democratic transition as early as 1992, the National Education Policy Investigation (NEPI) considered the options.  In its report on curriculum, NEPI insisted that a democratic South Africa had to abandon the previous system of religious education in which particular religious principles were explicitly taught in Christian religious instruction and implicitly taught throughout the entire curriculum in the name of Christian National Education. As NEPI found, such an agenda for religious education, instruction, or indoctrination established religious discrimination and religious coercion in education. 


Recognizing the need for change, NEPI considered three options: 


First, we could eliminate religion entirely from the school curriculum, but neglecting such an important feature of South African life would not do justice to the importance of religious diversity in our history and society. 


Second, we might establish parallel programmes in religious instruction, developed by different religious groups, but such a parallel model, entrenching a kind of “religious apartheid,” would still embody religious discrimination and religious coercion, since all students would be required to study a single-tradition religious education programme devoted to particular religious interests.


Third, we might introduce a programme of multi-religion education that would teach students about religion rather than engaging in the teaching, confession, propagation, or promotion of religion.  Guided by clear educational objectives, teaching and learning about religion and religions in public education promises social benefits of increased tolerance and understanding of diversity (National Education Coordinating Committee, 1992: 74-75).


Since the publication of these findings of the National Education Policy Investigation, debates about religion and public education have generally revolved around the question of whether or not a compromise could be worked out that accommodated both options two and three, mixing separate programmes of religious instruction, which serve religious interests in the promotion of a state-sanctioned, implicitly supported set of religions, with teaching and learning about religion, religions, and religious diversity.  After a decade of research, consultations, and ministerial commissions, the Department of Education finally found that such a mixture of the teaching of religion and teaching about religion was an educational contradiction rather than a viable compromise.  As part of the Manifesto on Values, Education, and Democracy, the Department of Education (2001) announced its policy of Religion Education.  In the revised curriculum, open for public scrutiny and debate, it published the primary educational objective of religion education, within a constitutional and human-rights framework:  “The learner should be able to demonstrate an active commitment to constitutional rights and social responsibilities and shows sensitivity to diverse cultures and belief systems.”  A public controversy ensued, raising important issues, not only about educational policy, but also about the spirit of the nation.




In response to the new curriculum, some Christians in South Africa, especially those with ideological, organizational, and financial links with conservative Christian groups in the United States, vigorously objected to the policy for religion education.  Through an organized, coordinated campaign, they argued that the new policy violated their human rights and constitutional rights to freedom of religion.  This campaign drew together apparently separate organizations—a Christian organization for home schooling (Pestalozzi Trust), a Christian organization for evangelizing Africa (Frontline Fellowship), a Christian political party (the African Christian Democratic Party), and other Christian groupings—in common cause against the new policy, curriculum, and learning outcomes.  In the midst of this controversy, however, it might be useful to reflect briefly on how opposition has come from a range of different Christian points of departure.  At the risk of simplifying, we can identify four different Christian positions—Reconstructionist, Protectionist, Ecumenical, and Interfaith—that have expressed very different religious interests in opposing the new policy. 


First, as the most vocal opponents, Christian Reconstructionists have mobilized letter-writing campaigns, media events, and public meetings against the new policy.  Culminating at a public meeting in the Western Cape at the Christian Centre on 9 October 2001, these opponents advanced the ingenious argument that teaching and learning about religion, religions, and religious diversity, which is an educational rather than a religious activity, was actually promoting a religious worldview.  Summarizing the meeting of “concerned Christians” at the Christian Centre, the reporter noted that the principal problem with the new policy was its “active promotion of a single set of values under the guise of tolerance.”  These values, which were glossed as relativism, situational ethics, and the equality of all religions, were castigated as the basic elements of a New Age religion.  “This set of implicit values,” the reporter declared, “is present in most New Age systems of thought.  Teaching and assessment based on these values effectively constitutes state promotion of a religious worldview in itself (secular humanism).  This is in total contradiction with the constitutional provision of freedom of religion.”  Although the promotion of relativism, situational ethics, and the religious equivalence of religions nowhere appears in the policy, “concerned Christians” at this meeting could nevertheless discern the implicit traces of a religious worldview, the religion of “secular humanism,” which was allegedly being established in public schools as an act of religious discrimination against Christians (Christian Centre, 2001).


Although this campaign certainly drew in parents who were concerned about the direction of educational policy in South Africa, the ingenious argument that education about religion “implicitly” promoted a religious worldview—the religion of secular humanism—was derived from right-wing Christian organizations in the United States.  Insisting that “secular humanism” has been defined as a religion by the U.S. Supreme Court, Christian opponents of the new educational policy in South Africa have been misled by right-wing Christian campaigns in America that have actually failed to sustain that case, especially in attempts to exclude science textbooks that do not explicitly promote the biblical account of creation on the grounds that they thereby implicitly promote the “religion of secular humanism.”


In the case of the Pestalozzi Trust, this organization for home schooling was explicitly linked, not only to a conservative Christian parent organization in the U.S., but also to the work of R. J. Rushdoony, the American founder of Christian Reconstructionism. Advocating a literal interpretation of the Bible and a literal adherence to biblical law, Rushdoony inspired the Chalcedon Foundation, the Institute for Christian Economics, the Rutherford Institute, and other right-wing Christian organizations in the United States.  Rushdoony was a champion of religious apartheid.  “Segregation or separation,” he wrote, “is a basic principle of Biblical law with respect to religion and morality.”  In defence of religious apartheid, Rushdoony opposed any form of civil toleration of religious difference, because “the believer is asked to associate on a common level of total acceptance with the atheist, the pervert, the criminal, and the adherents of other religions as though no differences existed” (Rushdoony, 1973: 294).  Under the influence of such religious prejudice, Christian Reconstructionists urge South African parents to prevent their children from being exposed to “foreign” religions, forgetting that those religious and other belief systems are not foreign but flourishing in South Africa. 


Disregard for adherents of other religions informs not only theory but also political practice among Christian Reconstructionists.  According to a prominent disciple of Rushdoony, Gary North, Christian Reconstructionists are justified in manipulating democratic, constitutional means for Christian ends.  “We must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools,” North wrote, “until we train up a generation of people who know there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government.”  Once that programme in Christian religious education was far enough advanced, North declared, then the students it produced would “get busy constructing a Bible-based social, political, and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God” (North, 1982: 25). 


Certainly, Christian Reconstructionism, with its manipulative rhetoric, religious apartheid, and anti-democratic tactics, cannot provide any basis for educational policy in a diverse and democratic South Africa.  Nevertheless, during the second half of 2001, most of the media attention given to the new curriculum was framed by the religious agenda of Christian Reconstructionists.


Second, Christian Protectionists, who have also gained some media attention, have been trying to retain the religious benefits of the old system of religious education.  Wanting to preserve the status accorded to a particular kind of Christian religious and biblical instruction under the apartheid regime, these opponents of the new policy have an agenda that is different than the American-influenced “concerned Christians.”  Nevertheless, on many points, these defenders of the old order have made common cause with arguments advanced by the Christian Reconstructionists.  In a widely distributed statement by Professor Pieter de Villiers, Chair of the South African Society of Biblical and Religious Studies, the new educational policy is attacked, not as a New Age religion, but as a “new ideology in school religion” (De Villiers, 2001). The organization that Professor De Villiers represents, which until recently was the “Society for Biblical Studies in South Africa,” engaged in a cynical manipulation of terminology by adding the phrase, “Religious Studies,” to suggest that its members had expertise in the open, plural, intercultural, and interdisciplinary study of religion and religions.  Based on Professor De Villiers’ statement in opposition to the new policy, it is difficult to conclude that he actually represents teaching and research in Religious Studies in South Africa.


Ignoring the logical, methodological, and constitutional problems entailed by combining separate programmes in the promotion of religion with education about religion, De Villiers longs for an arrangement, considered by an earlier ministerial commission, which he thinks “sanely allowed other options next to a multi-religious approach in schools.”  Those “other options,” referring to separate programmes in Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and perhaps “other” religious instruction, although how far the “other” extends is unclear, stand in contradiction to teaching and learning about religion, in all its diversity, as a viable educational programme in South African public schools.  Living with such a basic contradiction cannot be a formula for sanity.  According to De Villiers, however, local schools should be allowed to work out those “other options,” in the light of their particular, distinctive religious ethos.  In whatever way those local religious interests might be adjudicated, however, the advancement of religious interests would still come into conflict with constitutional protections against discriminating for or against religions. 


In defending single-faith religious instruction, De Villiers made the remarkable assertion that Christian religious education can provide the basis for “understanding among faiths” in a “healthy society,” because in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Centre, “Christian churches without multi-religious leanings in the United States organized the protection of Muslim communities.”  Although De Villiers seemed to be advocating a Christian religious education that would fulfill the curricular outcome of showing sensitivity to diverse cultures and belief systems, even “without multi-religious leanings,” this prospect is as remote in the United States as it is in South Africa.  It is difficult to argue that Muslim communities would feel safe in a Christian America.  Despite his quasi-scientific, medicalized, or psychologized rhetoric of “sane” and “healthy,” the Chair of the South African Society of Biblical and Religious Studies actually wants to protect Christian religious interests in education, even by advancing the unsupportable proposal that Christian education is a good basis for dealing with religious diversity in South Africa. 


By contrast, a third position, Christian Ecumenical, has been drawn into this controversy, perhaps reluctantly, since most of its adherents are not interested in defending the particular kind of Christian privilege inherited from the apartheid regime.  As a broad-based, ecumenical Christian association, the South African Council of Churches has certainly earned credibility in wrestling with a wide range of social problems in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa.  In his diatribe against religion education, Pieter de Villiers invoked the support of the SACC.  According to De Villiers, at its triennial national conference in August 2001, the SACC passed a motion “requesting the minister not to impose the multi-religious approach on schools as an exclusive system.”  Dramatically misrepresenting the deliberations within the SACC, this statement also distorts the actual resolution of the conference.  As that resolution was formulated, the SACC affirmed the basic educational aims, objectives, and outcomes of the new policy of religion education.  Regarding the question of religion and public education as a complex and sensitive issue, the SACC held “that it is important for learners to be informed about the various religious beliefs of the people of South Africa.” 


At the same time, the SACC accepted submissions from constituents interested in maintaining single-faith programmes in Christian education in the schools.  Accordingly, the SACC resolved that its General Secretary should engage in conversations with the Minster of Education “with the intention of promoting a religious education policy that makes provision for both a multi-religious approach and for single-faith learning programmes” (South African Council of Churches, 2001).  Unlike the Christian Reconstructionists or Christian Protectionists, therefore, the ecumenical Christians of the SACC recognized and affirmed the important educational value of learning about the religious beliefs of all the people of South Africa. 


Finally, among Christian objections, a Christian Interfaith position can be identified that objects not to learning about religions but to the apparent absence of explicit attention to spirituality in the new policy.  Assuming that learning about religions will not engage the affective, emotional, or spiritual development of learners, as if learning about religion was only cognitive, this position asserts that the policy is flawed because it does not explicitly identify outcomes of “spiritual development.”  According to Paul Faller, a prominent Catholic educator, director of the Catholic Institute of Education, innovator in the field of interreligious education, and chair of the ministerial committee for religious education during its deliberations in 1998, the new policy does not adequately address spiritual interests because it “will not invite the learner to the challenge of spiritual and moral development, or to the appreciation of and free commitment to a specific faith commitment” (Faller, 2001).  Faller calls for “a formative rather than a purely descriptive Religious Education” (Faller 2002). 


Although the new educational policy definitely does not promote religious, spiritual, or faith commitments, it also does not foreclose any opportunities for learners to make any of these personal discoveries in and through the process of learning about religious and other convictions.  In the process of learning about religion, pupils can certainly also learn from, with, and through religion in ways that form their own commitments.  Religion Education, as a formative enterprise, develops not only critical skills in description and analysis but also creative capacities for imagination, empathy, exploration, and discovery.  The assessment standard specified for Religion Education in the final year, Grade 12, certainly points to this formative capacity by expecting the learner to formulate “a personal mission statement based on core aspects of personal philosophies, values, beliefs and ideologies, which will inform and direct actions in life.”  Unlike the religious formation enforced by the Religious Education of the past, however, this educational goal is not determined by any prescribed religious content.  For this reason, perhaps, even religious educators who are open to religious diversity have tried to mobilize religious opposition to the new policy.


Different religious interests, therefore, have surfaced in the controversy over the new policy for religion education.  Although “concerned Christians” have spoken against the policy, religious leaders from a variety of religious communities have supported this new initiative.  In public education, as Father Albert Nolan has argued, “the school is not responsible for nurturing the religious development of the scholars but for providing learners with the knowledge about religion and morality and values and the diversity of religions” (Nolan, 2001).   Representing the Muslim Judicial Council, Sheikh Achmat Sedick has observed that there is no problem with religion education “as long as it is orientation and not indoctrination” (Sunday Times 28 October 2001).  Other religious leaders have indicated their support for teaching and learning about religion.  Religious opposition or support, however, cannot determine national policy for religion in public education.  Instead, as the new policy insists, the role of religion in the schools must be consistent with constitutional provisions for freedom of religious and other beliefs and freedom from religious and other discrimination. 


Within this constitutional framework, trained educators rather than religious leaders, clergy, or the old regime’s “devout teachers” must take the lead in developing resources for teaching and learning about religion, religions, and religious diversity.  Although innovative textbooks have been developed, much more needs to be done to provide teachers with effective materials and methods for realizing the educational objectives of religion education.  Recent textbooks for religion education enable learners to explore religious diversity (Amin, et al., 1998), religious festivals (Stonier, et al., 1996), sacred places (Stonier and Derrick, 1997), and African indigenous religious heritage (Kwenda, et al, 1997).  Although much more needs to be done, these and other resources represent a good beginning for religion education in South Africa. 




Between educational policy and educational practice in the classroom, of course, a huge gap looms.  In his opposition to the new policy, the Catholic educator Paul Faller has actually celebrated this gap, observing that teachers will be “defining and redefining the curriculum every day, in every classroom,” so by encouraging teachers to advance a religious education that is “formative and not simply informative,” he hopes to be able to establish in practice what he could not achieve in policy (Faller 2002). 


Certainly, religious educators, with religious interests, will find other ways to subvert the new policy.  In the light of the recommendations of the final document from the International Consultative Conference on School Education in Relation with Freedom of Religion and Belief, Tolerance, and Non-Discrimination held in Madrid during November 2001, educators in South Africa are faced with the challenge not only of formulating policy and curricula but also of enabling teachers with materials, methods, and training for teaching about religion, religions, and religious diversity in South Africa and the larger world. 


During 2002, progress was made on clarifying the general curriculum for Religion Education as part of the subject area of Life Orientation.  As the curriculum for this area was negotiated, learning about religion was located in the context of “social development,” situated in relation to learning about human rights, democratic participation, diversity, and community.  In General Education and Training (GET, Grades R-9), the learning outcome for Social Development, at every level, was specified:  “The learner will be able to demonstrate an understanding of and commitment to constitutional rights and responsibilities, and to show an understanding of diverse cultures and religions.”  Along with outcomes in Health Promotion, Personal Development, and Physical Development and Movement, this learning outcome for Social Development makes up the learning area of Life Orientation.  In Further Education and Training (FET, Grades 10-12), we find a similar location of teaching and learning about religion within Life Orientation, with religion education situated within the learning outcome for Responsible Citizenship in which “The learner is able to demonstrate competence and commitment regarding the values and rights that underpin the constitution in order to practice responsible citizenship, and enhance social justice and sustainable living.”  Throughout the curriculum, therefore, teaching and learning about religion is integrated into social development and citizenship education. 


Within that context, learning about religion, religions, and religious diversity is registered in terms of assessment standards.  At each grade, summarized here from R through 12, the learner demonstrates the achievement of the broader educational outcome of social development with respect to the component of religion education when he or she: 


R:  Identifies and names symbols linked to own religion.


1:  Matches symbols associated with a range of religions in South Africa.


2:  Describes important days from diverse religions.


3:  Discusses diet, clothing, and decorations in a variety of religions in South Africa.


4:  Discusses significant places and buildings in a variety of religions in South Africa.


5:  Discusses festivals and customs from a variety of religions in South Africa.


6:  Discusses the dignity of the person in a variety of religions in South Africa.


7:  Explains the role of oral traditions and scriptures in a range of the world’s religions.


8:  Discusses the contributions of organizations from various religious to social development.


9:  Reflects on and discusses the contributions of various religions in promoting peace.


10:  Displays knowledge about the major religions, ethical traditions, and belief systems in South Africa, clarifies own values and beliefs, and respects the rights of others to hold their own.


11:  Critically analyses moral issues and dilemmas and explains the consequences of beliefs and actions.


12:  Formulates a personal mission statement based on core aspects of personal philosophies, values, beliefs and ideologies, which will inform and direct actions in life.


Certainly, these educational expectations, which enable learners to begin engaging the religious diversity of their country and world, should be part of social development and citizenship education.  In order to participate in a unified non-racial, non-sexist, and democratic South Africa, as well as within an increasingly globalizing world, learners will need at least this level of educational engagement with religion, religions, and religious diversity.


To give a sense of proportion, however, we need to recognize that the curriculum has actually allowed very little space for this educational activity.  In Grades R-9, the learning area of Life Orientation, which includes four outcomes—Health Promotion, Social Development, Personal Development, and Physical Development and Movement—has been allocated 8 percent teaching time out of the total curriculum.  As one of four outcomes in Life Orientation, Social Development can be expected to account for 2 percent of teaching time.  As one in four assessment standards within Social Development, Religion Education ends up accounting for perhaps 0.5 percent of the overall curriculum.  Although these calculations cannot be applied mechanically, we can only conclude that Religion Education, the focus of so much controversy and contestation, actually has only a very small share of the general curriculum in South African schools.


So, have we been fighting over nothing (or almost nothing) in these battles over the future of religion in South African public schools?  Although we have ended up with less than anyone wanted, perhaps we have ended up with exactly what we need.  In a country that takes religion very seriously, with strong bonds of religious solidarity, but also with the potential for religious misunderstandings, divisions, and conflict, the relatively small space given for religion in schools might be just right.  Situated firmly with a human rights framework, and integrated into educational outcomes for citizenship, social development, and social justice, teaching and learning about religion might actually be in the right proportion to the rest of the curriculum for what South Africa needs at this historical moment. 


At the very least, the limited time and space allocated for religion in the curriculum helps clarify religious objections to the new policy for Religion Education. 


On the one hand, religious educators arguing for a religious, religious productive, or “formative” religious education could certainly not argue in good conscience that a child’s religious formation can possibly be managed by public schools within the small amount of classroom time allocated to religion.  Instead, as the new educational policy suggests, religious formation must be the responsibility of homes, families, and religious communities.  Given the demands on the curriculum, the best we can hope for is that the school can provide learners with a basic introduction to religion, religions, and religious diversity in ways that might increase understanding, reduce prejudice, and facilitate respect.  If those educational goals are to be achieved, then religion cannot be dealt with religiously.  In the space and time available, religion, like other aspects of human formation, such as race, class, and gender, must be addressed critically and creatively as part of the social fabric of South Africa that every child should learn about.


On the other hand, religious educators arguing against the viability of educational initiatives in teaching and learning about religion, religions, and religious diversity must come to terms with the modest goals of Religion Education.  No child, many of these religious educators have argued, should be exposed to other religions until their own religious identity has been formed.  Caving into religious pressure from “Concerned Christians” with an interest in determining the religious formation of children, the Provincial Minister of Education in the Western Cape, André Gaum, in April 2002 announced that his province would not be implementing the new provisions of the curriculum for Religion Education.  Insisting, against the findings of educational research, that “awareness of other religions is best developed later in the school child’s life,” this provincial minister of education defied national policy by instructing his department to develop programmes for Grades R through 6 that “do not include requirements for study of other religions” (Gaum, 2002).  In other words, he insisted that learners within his jurisdiction should be prevented from achieving the minimal expectations of the curriculum during these years that would enable them to identify and name symbols linked to their own religion, describe important days from diverse religions, and discuss diet, clothing, and decorations, significant places and buildings, festivals and customs, and the dignity of the person in a variety of religions in South Africa.  Although he thought he was responding to legitimate religious interests, Provincial Minister of Education André Gaum was actually condemning his pupils to ignorance about their world. 


By August 2004, however, the provincial ministers of education had unanimously adopted the new policy, which was formally launched in Parliament on 9 September 2004.  Having clarified policy, much work remains to be done in materials development and teacher training to support education about religion that is consistent with South African constitutional values and international initiatives in human rights such as the Madrid Document of 2001.  With respect to religion and belief, these principles have been established in South African educational policy and national curriculum.  Following the recommendations from Madrid, we are faced with the challenges of training, motivating, and enabling teachers, of documenting “best practices” in education about religion, and of furthering international exchanges in the field of religion education.  Even within the small compass allowed by the curriculum for this enterprise, enormous gains can be anticipated in advancing education in human rights, citizenship, social justice, and diversity by paying attention to religion and religions, not as a religious activity, but as an educational priority in teaching and learning about our world. 




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The above presentation is part of a database developed by
The Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

This entry: November 2003