Schweizer-Reneke row: 'I hold no grudge', says tearful teacher as court lifts suspension

Schweizer-Reneke teacher Elana Barkhuizen in Labour Court in Johannesburg. (Ntwaagae Seleka/News24)
Schweizer-Reneke teacher Elana Barkhuizen in Labour Court in Johannesburg. (Ntwaagae Seleka/News24)

"I hold no grudge", said Elana Barkhuizen wiping tears from her face.

The teacher, who was suspended by the Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke for taking and distributing a picture of pupils seated by race, said she holds no grudges against the school and the department of education in North West after a judge ruled that her suspension had been unlawful.

An emotional Elana Barkhuizen addressed the media outside the Labour Court in Johannesburg accompanied by her lawyers and members of trade union Solidarity, following the ruling by Judge Connie Prinsloo.

Prinsloo found that Barkhuizen was not granted a hearing before she could be suspended by the school governing body (SGB). The court ordered that Barkhuizen must report back to her post on Friday.

OVERVIEW: Schweizer-Reneke teacher's suspension declared unlawful, judge orders her return to work

The judge also ordered both the department of education in the province and the SGB to permit Barkhuizen to return to work.

"I am very happy. I want to thank everybody who supported and was there for me. I am happy that justice has been served," said Barkhuizen.

Tense confrontations

The teacher was employed by the SGB as a Grade R teacher in 2017. The following year, she formed a school WhatsApp group where teachers communicated with parents.

On January 9 this year Barkhuizen posted images she took in the group. Among them was a picture of black and white pupils sitting at separate tables in a classroom.

The image sparked an uproar which resulted in tense confrontations between white and black residents inside and outside the school premises.

On the morning of January 10 MEC for education Sello Lehari announced Barkhuizen's suspension. He later claimed that he hadn't suspended the teacher but had only endorsed the decision taken by the SGB to suspend her.

In her defence, Barkhuizen said she was not the one who had seated the children. The teacher in question remains at the school despite threats by Lehari that two more people from the school were going to be suspended.

"I can't wait to see my children again. I can't wait to go back to school and teach. I am expecting a grateful reception when I return back to work. I miss my family, school and the community of Schweizer-Reneke and I am glad that I am returning back to work," she said.

MEC 'went far beyond his powers'

"I hold no grudge against the SGB and the department," she said.

Solidarity CEO Dirk Hermann, who helped the teacher take the matter to court, welcomed the ruling. He said he hoped the court victory would send a message to all in the country.

"South Africa has rules and we should all abide by the constitutional framework. The judgment came down hard on the MEC. He went far beyond his powers.

"It is unfortunate that we had to come to court. We call on the MEC to set aside the whole issue. He should learn from this," said Hermann.

SGB conducting investigation

Chairperson of the South African Democratic Teachers' Union in the North West Mxolisi Bomvana said the union would have to study the judgment before responding.

The union has demanded that Lehari provide it with reasons why he supported the decision by the SGB to suspend Barkhuizen.

The provincial department of education could not be reached for comment. 

The governing body of Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke said it had noted the court's ruling.

"Mrs Barkhuizen, through her representatives, requested a few days' leave. It was granted by the governing body," SGB chairperson Jozeph du Plessis said. 

He said the SGB was now conducting its own investigation and would soon be in touch with Barkhuizen and her representatives.

"The process is handled with the necessary sensitivity and confidentiality, taking into account an employer/employee relationship of trust. The governing body continuously strives to act in the best interests of the learners, school and staff," said Du Plessis. 

He said the school was functioning without any disruptions.

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