Protests are growing against the Swaziland Government’s order that Christianity is to be the only religion taught in schools.
The decision was imposed by the Swazi Cabinet which is handpicked by King Mswati III, the autocratic monarch in Swaziland. The move came into force on 24 January 2017 at the start of the school year after only a few days’ notice.
The AFP international news agency reported, ‘Officials said that old text books were being replaced with new ones that mention only the Bible, and that schools were required to submit a list of qualified religious studies teachers ahead of the start of term.’
It added, ‘“Other religions will not be offered at primary and high school level,” said Pat Muir, a top education ministry official, adding that the policy sought to avoid confusing pupils.’
Eyewitness News in South Africa reported, ‘Schools are obliged to submit their religious studies syllabi at the start of each term to show they contain no Islamic or Jewish references.’
The move could be against the spirit, if not the letter, of the Swazi Constitution. When the 2005 Constitution was being drafted, it was decided not to insist that Swaziland was a Christian country. This was to encourage freedom of religion.
According to the CIA World factbook religion in Swaziland is broken down as Zionist (a blend of Christianity and indigenous ancestral worship) 40 percent, Roman Catholic 20 percent, Muslim 10 percent, other (includes Anglican, Bahai, Methodist, Mormon, Jewish) 30 percent.
Lucky Lukhele, the spokesperson of the Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN), an organisation banned in Swaziland because it campaigns for democracy in the kingdom, said, ‘This pits the authorities on a clash with the national Constitution adopted in 2005 which guarantees freedom of religion and declares Swaziland a multi-faith based society, thus barring anyone from imposing their own religious beliefs on others. The constitution and laws prohibit religious discrimination and provide for freedom of religion, including the right to worship and to change religion.’
The African Independent reported him saying, ‘We will be engaging all the democratic forces in Swaziland to challenge this unilateral and short-sighted decision by government whose effect will be to arrest the thought process, flourishing of ideas and intellectual growth of Swazi children.
‘For a long time the Swazi state has been abusing religion as a tool to exercise a firm grip on people’s freedoms and their right to demand respect for their rights. This is unacceptable and we will challenge it in the courts, in regional bodies, the African Union and even the United Nations. Not only is this decision unconstitutional, but also it is barbaric and contrary to world trends and advancement.’
AFP said, ‘The US State Department's International Religious Freedom Report said some schools have long sought to prevent Muslim pupils from leaving early for Friday prayers.
‘It also said some Christian groups “discriminated against non-Christian religious groups, especially in rural areas where people generally held negative views on Islam”’
Lawyers for Human Rights spokesperson Sabelo Masuku said although Swaziland was predominantly Christian, the Government had to consider the Swazi Constitution which made it clear there was freedom of religious choice.
The Swazi Observer newspaper reported that Masuku said, ‘what government has done was very risky and some people might not take kindly to other religions being banned’.
Nkosingiphile Myeni, Communications Officer of The Coordinating Assembly of Non-Governmental Organisations (CANGO) in Swaziland, a network of NGOs, ecumenical bodies and other faith-based organisations, said, ‘Firstly, government must not forget that in 2005, Swaziland entered a new era of constitutionalism. In Section 23 of the Constitution, liberties including human rights, freedom of conscience and religion are entrenched. The inclusion of all other religions must be in line with this constitutional provision to cater for all sectors of society.’
Myeni said Swaziland had to adhere to international standards such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration stated, ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.’
The Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) criticised the move saying the Swazi Government had made a decision based on ideology.
SNAT Secretary General Zwelithini Mndzebele in a statement said learning was about being exposed to diverse experiences that gave the young person the opportunity to use judgment and apply the learned skills.
Mndzebele said, ‘Learning about other religions helps everyone to better accommodate and understand others’ aspirations and ways of life. It is one of the best catalysts for the achievement of world peace.’
School principals said they feared other religions might take the Government to court over the ban because it might infringe the Swazi Constitution on freedom of religion.
The Swazi Observer reported, ‘The principals said the schools that would be teaching Christianity only were government owned and such entities were governed by the constitution.’
The newspaper said. ‘Schools Manager Macanjana Motsa assured the principals that what was being introduced in the schools had been approved by government. Motsa said the constitution talked about freedom of religion and this was practised in churches, which are structures outside the schools.
‘She added that there was nowhere where they banned other religions such as Islam from being practised in the country. Motsa said the different religions could be practised outside school boundaries as nothing has changed on that.
‘She said the syllabus taught in public schools was regulated by government and she believes they have not strayed from that.’
SCHOOLS RELIGIOUS TEACHING SHAKE-UP