Schweizer-Reneke teacher told of her suspension a minute before official announcement

15 January 2019 - 14:55 By Graeme Hosken
Schweizer-Reneke teacher Elana Barkhuizen 'is known for her kind heart and her love for all children regardless of race'.
Schweizer-Reneke teacher Elana Barkhuizen 'is known for her kind heart and her love for all children regardless of race'.
Image: Alon Skuy

The first that Laërskool Schweizer-Reneke grade R teacher Elana Barkhuizen - who is at the centre of South Africa's latest racial furore - knew of her suspension was a telephone call from her principal. Exactly a minute later, North West Education MEC Sello Lehari announced to the country that she had been suspended.

Barkhuizen, who has taught at the school for two years, was suspended last week Wednesday after photographs she took showing four black children sitting apart from their white classmates, in another grade R teacher's class, went viral on social media.

Barkhuizen sent the photographs to a parents-teachers WhatsApp group to show the parents how their children were experiencing their first day of school. The photograph showing the children separated was one of four photographs which Barkhuizen took. The other three photographs show the children integrated and mingling with each other at their school desks.

The Solidarity trade union is now challenging her suspension and the way it was done.

The union says that it was not within North West education MEC Sello Lehari's powers to suspend Barkhuizen as she was employed by the school governing body [SGB] and not by the provincial education department.

Solidarity's Dirk Herman, speaking at a press conference in Pretoria on Tuesday January 15, said no proper reason had been given for Barkhuizen's suspension.

"The closest thing that we have received to an explanation is a one-line message saying that she has been suspended with full pay. It does not say why."

He said the other grade R teacher, in whose class the children were photographed, had not been suspended.

"I doubt she even will be suspended as the department has said they will decide only once their investigation is done. This is ironic given that Barkhuizen was suspended before the investigation even began.

"This leaves the question, why is Barkhuizen still suspended?"

Herman said it was clear Barkhuizen was a "sacrifical lamb".

Elana Barkhuizen‚ the teacher at the centre of the racism storm at a North West primary school‚ held a joint media briefing with Solidarity in Pretoria on Tuesday, January 15 2018 where she released a statement about the viral photo that led to her suspension, and announced her intention to fight back.

"She is not even the teacher of the class where the photographs were taken. The department has suspended the wrong teacher."

He said Solidarity would launch an urgent court application to challenge the suspension.

"The challenge is going to be based on the unlawfulness of how the suspension was done. It does not comply with any education department policy, nor the Education Act."

He said it was only through such a legal process that the truth would be revealed, "which has been hidden by the 'bundu court' that Barkhuizen has been tried in. If we do not challenge this, the decisions of such bundu courts will become the country's rules.

"We will also, after the court application is complete, launch a defamation case against her accusers, including Lehari and others, for falsely portraying Barkhuizen as a racist."

Herman said Barkhuizen was a teacher known for her kind heart and her love for all children regardless of race.

"She is known for breaking down racial barriers. She brings sandwiches to children who come to school hungry. She feeds hungry children regardless of whether they are black or white."

He said the crux of the issue came down to a lack of infrastructure supplied to schools by the education department.

"A failing education system and collapsing infrastructure, where there are not enough teachers who can speak to children in their mother tongue, has led to children being placed into classes while they can neither speak English nor Afrikaans.

"As a result teachers, who are the frontline of the country's education system and who are completely overwhelmed, are being forced into situations where they have to do the best they can under very trying circumstances."

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