North West MEC put Schweizer-Reneke teacher's life in danger, falsely accused her of racism - SAHRC

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Sello Lehari, former MEC for education in the North West, visited Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke around the time of the debacle.
Sello Lehari, former MEC for education in the North West, visited Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke around the time of the debacle.
PHOTO: Christiaan du Plessis/Netwerk24
  • The publication of a photograph of black and white pupils sitting at separate tables at a North West primary school in 2019 led to a teacher being accused of racism.
  • Following a probe, the SA Human Rights Commission found claims of unfair discrimination at the school could not be substantiated. 
  • The SAHRC also found that the education MEC at the time had violated the teacher's constitutional rights and put her life in danger.

Former North West Education MEC Sello Lehari’s successor has been instructed to apologise for Lehari's conduct after he was found to have falsely accused teacher Elana Barkhuizen of racism.

It was also found that Lehari had put Barkhuizen's life in danger by publicly disclosing her identity.

Barkhuizen was the teacher who took a photograph which showed four black pupils sitting at a separate table from white children in a Grade R class in 2019. The photo went viral on social media at the time and sparked wide outrage.

The photograph led to allegations of racial segregation and unfair discrimination at Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke.

Barkhuizen was at the centre of the allegations, having taken the photograph. It was originally posted to a WhatsApp group for the childrens’ parents to see how they were settling in on the first day of school.

READ | 'I detest racism' - Barkhuizen gives her version of what happened at Schweizer-Reneke school

She was summarily suspended and Lehari disclosed her name to protesters and media who had gathered at the school in the aftermath. 

It was later revealed that the photograph was not of Barkhuizen’s class and that the seating arrangements were not aimed at discriminating against the black pupils, but were based on their language needs and aimed at helping them integrate at the Afrikaans-medium school.

The allegations and social outrage led to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) launching an investigation.

More than four years later, the investigation has been completed and the report made public.

The SAHRC said the allegation that the school had unfairly discriminated against the four pupils could not be substantiated.

The commission did say that the four black pupils had been treated differently, purportedly on the basis of language, and indirectly on the basis of their race, but that the discrimination was fair on a balance of probabilities.

The Chapter 9 institution was also of the view that the discrimination in question was a result of unconscious racial profiling and an absence of clear policy supporting integration, which, in turn, were probably the result of the slow progress in the transformation of the demographics at the school.

It added:

Although the unconscious racial profiling of learners is regrettable, it does not rise to the level of unfair discrimination in the context of this case.

The commission further noted that the seating arrangement was temporary, and that the pupils had since fully integrated.  

The findings effectively exonerated Barkhuizen, who, at one point, had to flee from her home and remove her children from school because of safety concerns.

The commission also found that the public disclosure of Barkhuizen’s name by the MEC had constituted a violation of her right to privacy and prejudiced her human rights, including her rights to due process, security, freedom of movement, association and human dignity.

Elana Barkhuizen smiling in older photo
According to the SAHRC, teacher Elana Barkhuizen was falsely accused of racism at a North West primary school in 2019.

"Within 14 days of this report, the current MEC for Education of the North West Province must issue a public written apology to Ms Barkhuizen for the manner in which she was treated by the department and the former MEC for Education in the North West province," it ruled.

"The written apology should, inter alia, state that the MEC is apologising for the violation of Ms Barkhuizen's rights to due 58 process and privacy.

READ | Tensions high in Schweizer-Reneke ahead of North West education MEC's briefing

"Moreover, the MEC should apologise for the former MEC’s conduct of falsely accusing Ms Barkhuizen of racism and for placing her life and the life of her family at risk through the public disclosure of her identity. The written apology should be printed in at least one national newspaper and posted on the website of the department for at least one month."

The commission further found that the publication of the photograph in the media and on social media platforms had violated the pupils' right to privacy.

News24 reached out to the North West Department of Education to get its views on the report, but it could not respond.

Spokesperson Elias Malindi said the department could not comment at this stage as it still needed to study the report.

"Once the department has gone over the report, we will be in a better position to provide comment," he said.

Barkhuizen was being supported by trade union Solidarity, which welcomed the report.

"Elana Barkhuizen was brave enough to fight against the department and the hysterical media. Thanks to her, populistic politicians and the media will now think twice before ruining ordinary people’s lives with false allegations of racism," said Solidarity chief executive Dirk Hermann.

When asked whether Barkhuizen was willing to comment on the SAHRC's report, Solidarity said she preferred not to speak on the matter.

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