Was the right teacher suspended? The facts behind the finger-pointing
Schweizer-Reneke school race row descends into a war of words
The North West education department insisted on Tuesday that Schweizer-Reneke Grade R teacher Elana Barkhuizen would remain suspended despite claims that the wrong teacher had been sanctioned. “It’s not like the MEC [Sello Lehari] had a crystal ball when he went to the school. He went to the school and asked what is going on? Why are black and white children being separated, whose classroom is this and who took the photographs?
“The name that was given to the MEC was that of Elana Barkhuizen,” Lehari’s spokesperson, Freddy Sepang, told Times Select.
Barkhuizen hit international headlines on Wednesday when photographs she took of black and white Grade R pupils sitting at separate desks on their first day at Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke in a fellow teacher’s classroom, went viral on social media.
Within hours of the photographs making their way onto social media, Lehari announced her suspension with immediate effect and the establishment of a task team to investigate the incident.
Sepang said the school governing body [SGB] and the school’s principal identified Barkhuizen as the “perpetrator”.
His comments came just hours after Barkhuizen – who broke her silence for the first time on Tuesday at a press conference in Pretoria – said she would, through the Solidarity trade union, fight her suspension in the courts for the dignity of “my [class] children”, and to clear her name.
A tearful Barkhuizen said: “I will walk this path and win. I am a good teacher. Since I can remember, it has been my dream to teach small children. It is often a thankless profession, but I am paid in smiles, kisses and hugs … My job is not politics, but teaching. My profession is love for children.”
She said she was challenging her suspension to ensure that “what had happened to me will never happen to another teacher”.
Solidarity has described the suspension as unlawful and “ironic”.
Dirk Herman, Solidarity’s chief executive, said Barkhuizen was not the offending teacher, “yet she was suspended while the other teacher [Elsabe Olivier] was still working”.
“All that Elana did was go to her [Olivier’s] classroom and take photographs of the children. The photographs were shared with the parents of all Grade R children via a parent-teacher WhatsApp chat group.”
Herman, speaking to Times Select, said that, looking at all the photographs taken, one could see the children sitting in Barkhuzien’s class were all integrated right from the beginning of the day.
He said Olivier had yet to be suspended.
“I doubt she even will be [suspended] as the department has said they will only decide on whether they should suspend her once their investigation is over. This is ironic given that Barkhuizen was suspended before the investigation into her even began.
“This leaves the question as to why Barkhuizen is still suspended.”
Herman described Barkhuizen as a “sacrificial lamb”.
“The department has suspended the wrong teacher, with no proper reason given for Barkhuizen’s suspension. The closest thing that we have received to an explanation is a one-liner message saying that she has been suspended with full pay. It does not say why.”
He said they would launch an urgent court application this week to challenge the suspension.
“Lehari did not have the power to suspend Barkhuizen as she is employed by the SGB. We are also challenging the way the SGB did the suspension, which was through the one-liner message, without giving her an opportunity to say why she should not be suspended. “The challenge is going to be based on the unlawfulness of how it [the suspension] was done. It does not comply with any education department policy or the education act.”
Asked why Olivier had not been suspended, Sepang said her name never came up during the meeting between Lehari and the school.
“Lehari went to the school, asked who took the photograph, whose class it was in, who the class teacher was. The name of the alleged perpetrator was that of Barkhuizen.
“The other teacher [Olivier], through the education department task team, is being investigated, but she has not been suspended. The reason she has not been suspended is because the school didn’t provide her name.
“We suspended Elana because we thought she is the class teacher and she took the photos and only her name was given to us.”
SGB chairperson Jozeph du Plessis confirmed that the principal and the SGB provided Lehari with Barkhuizen’s name.
“We co-operated with the MEC and suspended her.”
Asked whether he had explained that the photographs were taken in Olivier’s classroom, Du Plessis, said: “We tried to explain how things happened, but we were never given a proper opportunity or the space.
“This is only a precautionary suspension and Barkhuizen is on full pay.”
Asked why Olivier, whose husband works at a law firm in the small town, had not been suspended, Du Plessis said she was a department employee, and the SGB had no power to suspend her.
“Along with the department and Human Rights Commission investigations, which are due to be completed this week, we have our own investigation, which is being conducted by an education lawyer.
“Our investigation, which should be completed next week, will look into Barkhuizen’s conduct, the school’s ethos, admission and social media policy, and the management of diversity including language diversity.”
Olivier, contacted by Times Select, declined to comment.