South Africa

Laerskool Schweizer Reneke: School teacher heads to court to challenge suspension

Laerskool Schweizer Reneke teacher Elana Barkhuizen is going to court to challenge her suspension, trade union Solidarity announced on Tuesday. Barkhuizen was suspended after images showing Grade R students separated by race in a class were shared. Trade union Solidarity suggests she is a scapegoat for populist politicians.

Trade union Solidarity announced on Tuesday that it would challenge Laerskool Schweizer Reneke teacher Elana Barkhuizen's suspension in court after she was suspended last week following images that emerged from the North West school of Grade R students separated by race in a classroom.

In a press conference in Centurion, the union said Barkhuizen was suspended in violation of labour laws and was being targeted by populist politicians eager to be seen to be acting against white people accused of racism.

No one paid heed to the legal processes. It did not matter to anyone that she was not the teacher of the class in question. Without following due process she was unceremoniously charged, found guilty and punished by the way of humiliation,” said Solidarity CEO Dirk Hermann.

Barkhuizen shared pictures of four black learners on their first day of school sitting on a separate table from a larger group of white students.

North West Education MEC Sello Lehari announced an investigation and suspended Barkhuizen. The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) also announced an investigation and multiple political parties condemned the teacher and the school.

Solidarity leaders said Barkhuizen shared the pictures but was not the teacher of the class. They said she had not been told why she was suspended and had been employed by the school governing body rather than the education department, meaning her suspension by the MEC was unlawful.

Lehari's rash action has caused untold trauma to an innocent teacher and her family who are fearing for their lives while her dignity was severely impaired. Moreover, she has been presented to the world as a racist,” said Hermann.

Barkhuizen spoke at the press conference but had been advised not to go into the merits of the case. An emotional and tearful Barkhuizen spoke in Afrikaans but the union shared her prepared speech in English. She touched on her commitment to teaching, her love for her students and the pain she has endured since the story was shared.

Anton van der Bijl, head of legal at Solidarity, said: “It seems to be the norm these days and especially with the forthcoming elections that when there's (an) alleged and unproven incident which is selectively perceived as a white person being racist towards a black person that politicians and the public accepts and furthers this narrative that the person is racist. This will stop with Elana's case.”

While Solidarity said Barkhuizen wasn't the teacher of the class featured in the images, Solidarity leaders focused on the need to separate learners from different language groups on their first day of school.

They suggested students who spoke Setswana and could not speak English or Afrikaans needed to initially be separated on the morning of their first day at school to make them feel comfortable. The union leaders said Barkhuizen brought her domestic worker to school to help translate for those who they said only spoke Setswana.

Solidarity leaders said it should be up to the education department to cater for learners who speak different languages rather than leaving teachers to improvise.

The allegations of racism and segregation at Laerskool Schweizer Reneke have led to protests at the school and parents keeping their children from attending. Armed private security was reportedly hired to protect the school. Reports have also emerged claiming racism is entrenched in the town.

Solidarity officials said politicians and government leaders would be embarrassed once the investigations on what really happened at the school emerged, but they did not want to comment on the teacher of the class in the photos.

The Laerskool Schweizer Reneke issue follows repeated claims that former white schools across the country have failed to adequately transform and continue to discriminate against black students.

The SAHRC said in a statement on Friday: “The Commission is deeply concerned that instances of discrimination and related intolerance continue to take place within the school system.”

Since the photos from Schweizer Reneke were released, allegations of racism have emerged at schools such as Hoërskool Stilfontein in North West and King Edward High School in Matatiele, Eastern Cape. DM