Raw feelings as town reckons with its notoriety

Racism the only topic as Schweizer-Reneke hits the headlines

13 January 2019 - 00:00 By GRAEME HOSKEN
Days after it found itself at the centre of a race row over the apparent segregation of black grade R pupils from their white classmates, Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke in North West appeared to be closed, though not all pupils had been told.
Days after it found itself at the centre of a race row over the apparent segregation of black grade R pupils from their white classmates, Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke in North West appeared to be closed, though not all pupils had been told.
Image: Alaister Russell

The anger is etched on Edwin Koloi's face.

His seven-year-old daughter, Karline, is hanging on to a green palisade gate, begging to be allowed to enter the playground of her school, Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke.

Just metres away from the school - which has become the epicentre of SA's latest race battle - gun-toting white fathers stand watching, their anger and suspicion clear.

A school notice board displays the words Ons het respek vir mekaar (We respect each other).

It went up within hours of the school making international headlines after photographs circulated of four five-year-old black children sitting at a desk on their own, apart from their white classmates.

"I have just been told Karline may not come in," Koloi told the Sunday Times.

"I was told I should have got an SMS last night [Thursday] which said the school was going to be closed for today. A teacher said I should come back on Monday and maybe I will be lucky and the school will be open. But, if not Monday then by Tuesday it will definitely be open."

He's deeply frustrated.

"Apparently all the white parents got the message last night, but those of us who are darker did not. I'm not the only one here. Look at the others. Karline loves this school and all she wants to do is play with her friends. She is not interested in this nonsense of racism. She just wants to learn."

The photograph that started the race battle - taken by Elana Barkhuizen, one of the school's grade R teachers - was one of several circulated on social media.

The other photographs showed the children later mingling with each other.

Barkhuizen, who has been suspended by the provincial government, reportedly fled the town on Thursday.

The picture taken by a Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke grade R teacher that caused outrage when it was shared on social media this week.
The picture taken by a Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke grade R teacher that caused outrage when it was shared on social media this week.
Image: Supplied

The North West education department confirmed on Friday that she was not the teacher of that class, but had merely taken the photo. However, said education spokesperson Freddy Sepeng, she had been suspended because "she took the picture and she [must have known] what she saw was wrong". He said the class teacher was also being investigated and a report would be handed to MEC Sello Lehari on Monday.

"The school claims it was not deliberate - that it was initially done because of language barriers, but all the kids who go here - black and white - speak Afrikaans," said Koloi.

He said the reaction to the photographs - protesters stormed the school grounds and gun-wielding parents descended on the school to rescue their children - had left him frightened.

"It shows things are not right. This town is a bed of racism," he said.

"It's not the first such incident at the school. Our children get called swartetjies [little blacks] by some teachers and pupils."

Fellow parent Annie Lee is also angry.

"This excuse of the kids being separated because of language is rubbish. Our home language is Afrikaans. This is the only Afrikaans school in town."

A mother of one of the four grade R pupils, who asked not to be named to protect her child's identity, said: "When I got the photograph I phoned the principal who said it was a mistake and things would be changed. The teacher was suspended, which I am glad about, but it doesn't change what happened.

"People have said if we don't like it we should move. I thought of doing that and told my son I was taking him out, but he got cross and said no.

"He said he had friends at the school and wants to stay. He's right. Why must we leave when it's this town's racists who are the problem?"

White residents deny racism is entrenched in their town. But their denials appear to be contradicted by two pubs just outside Schweizer-Reneke - Bullets and Katrus - which display apartheid memorabilia, including busts honouring HF Verwoerd.

A bust of the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd, and other apartheid-era memorabilia at the entrance to Bullets Pub just outside Schweizer-Reneke.
A bust of the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd, and other apartheid-era memorabilia at the entrance to Bullets Pub just outside Schweizer-Reneke.
Image: Alaister Russell

"There are no-go zones in this town for black people," said MacBeth Boitshoko of the civic action group Restoration of Hope.

"If you go to Bullets and you are black you will be beaten. There are shops here where if you are standing in a queue and a white person is behind you, staff will serve them first.

"We are trying to change minds, but it is difficult. Racism is deeply entrenched."

During a visit by the Sunday Times to Bullets, patrons and staff openly used the K-word.

"Ons vertrou hulle nie. Nie die k*****s en nie die Engelse bitches soos julle [We do not trust them. Not the k*****s and not the English bitches like you]," shouted one patron, John, who declined to give his surname.

Community leader Rashid Kathrada, nephew of anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada, who was born in Schweizer-Reneke, said cool heads were needed.

"The only way this will be resolved is through dialogue. Emotions are high. People need to step back. Like elsewhere in SA, there are small pockets of racism here.

"Fortunately there are more good people here than those stuck in the past. In the end we need to be thinking about the children."

School governing body chair Jozeph du Plessis said the school had not been closed.

Some members of Schweizer-Reneke's white community came armed during North West education MEC Sello Lehari's visit to the school.
Some members of Schweizer-Reneke's white community came armed during North West education MEC Sello Lehari's visit to the school.
Image: Tiro Ramatlhatse

"Maybe the so-called parents saying this were staging this," he said, when asked why black parents had not been told the school was shut. "We sent SMSes out saying the school was open . If there were no kids here then it could be because parents didn't get the message because they changed their cellphone numbers, or they were scared for their child's safety. I wouldn't blame them if they were scared," he said.

Koloi said he received the SMS only after he returned home late on Friday. "If they say they sent it on Thursday that's a lie," he said.

Schweizer-Reneke mayor Aaron Mo-tswana said he was confident the incident would not overshadow the good in the town.

"We have been through difficulties, just like any other town, but we held hands together, black and white, and pulled through.

"[Barkhuizen] must be afforded an opportunity to give an explanation for her actions, which to date she has not been granted."

Admitting that Schweizer-Reneke "has not moved equally like other towns", Motswana nonetheless insisted that racism was not entrenched.

"You have pockets within our society who still resist change, but it is not the entire white community. What we need is dialogue to persuade and drive positive change."


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