Dear Corruption Watch,
The principal at a no-fee school is charging us R1 000 a year. I refused to pay and I’ve been victimised – even called a prostitute! What are my rights if I blow the whistle on him? Someone told me most of the whistleblower protection has to do with the workplace and is not designed to protect the customer of a public service.
Dear Angry Parent,
Before discussing your rights as a whistle-blower, I must explain the exceptional circumstances in which no-fee schools may charge school fees and your rights as a parent.
In general, if a school has been declared a no-fee school by the minister of basic education, it will receive a threshold amount of funding from the provincial department and no school fees may be charged by that school.
But if the department does not give the school the threshold amount of funding, it may charge school fees to make up the shortfall in government funding.
You should begin by checking with the provincial department of education whether the school has received its funding from the government. If it has, the school may not charge school fees.
If the department has not provided the funding, the school may charge fees – but only to make up the amount it should have received from the department and no more. If this is the case and you cannot afford to pay the school fees, you can apply to the school governing body for an exemption. You can appeal the decision with the head of department.
If the principal or school governing body is acting unlawfully in charging school fees, this must be brought to the attention of the provincial department of education. You are correct that the Protected Disclosures Act applies only in the workplace to protect employees against victimisation when they blow the whistle on unlawful activities.
The South African Schools Act applies to your case, however, and specifically protects pupils against victimisation for the non-payment of school fees.
It states the following: “A learner may not be deprived of his or her right to participate in all aspects of the programme of a public school despite the non-payment of school fees by his or her parent and may not be victimised in any manner, including but not limited to the following conduct:
a. Suspension from classes;
b. Verbal or nonverbal abuse;
c. Denial of access to
(i) Cultural, sporting or social activities of the school; or
(ii) The nutrition programme of the school for those learners who qualify in terms of the applicable policy; or
d. Denial of a school report or transfer certificate.”
The schools act does not protect parents from victimisation of the sort you describe, but it does make clear that a public school cannot attach your house to enforce the payment of school fees. To protect yourself against further verbal abuse by the principal, there are a number of practical steps that you could take.
First, try to get other parents involved in challenging the school fees. This will afford you strength in numbers and may make the principal wary of committing any further personal attacks.
Second, you can complain about the principal’s conduct to the school governing body and, if necessary, to the head of department.
If these steps do not work and you continue to be the victim of abuse, you can approach the public protector (who has the power to investigate and take action against any public official or body for misconduct).
You could also approach the South African Human Rights Commission for violation of your rights to dignity and equality.
Information on how to submit complaints to these offices can be found on their respective websites: www.pprotect.org and www.sahrc.org.za.
You can also approach Corruption Watch and register a complaint online at: https://www.corruptionwatch.org.za/content/make-your-complaint.
• This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times