Court rules Elana Barkhuizen can return to teaching in North West

Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke teacher Elana Barkhuizen during a press briefing with Trade Union Solidarity in Centurion at Forever Resort, 15 January 2019, Pretoria. Picture: Jacques Nelles

Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke teacher Elana Barkhuizen during a press briefing with Trade Union Solidarity in Centurion at Forever Resort, 15 January 2019, Pretoria. Picture: Jacques Nelles

The teacher took the brunt of fallout over a photo showing alleged racial separation in a Grade R classroom.

The Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke teacher, Elana Barkhuizen, who was suspended earlier this month amid a storm of racism allegations, will return to teaching from tomorrow after turning to the courts for relief.

Supported by union Solidarity, she approached the Labour Court in Johannesburg in urgent action.

The court found her suspension was unlawful. The court furthermore ordered that her suspension be lifted with immediate effect.

The school made headlines after a photo emerged, taken by Barkhuizen, showing the racial segregation of pupils in a Grade R class.

Barkhuizen was unlawfully suspended on January 10 after the photo sparked a social media outcry. Shortly afterwards, Barkhuizen was informed that she was suspended without any explanation being offered for it.

Lehari clarified that the teacher was suspended by the school governing body (SGB) and that he only supported the SGB and had made the announcement public. According to the court papers, Lehari and the education department had no right to suspend Barkhuizen as she was appointed by the school and its governing body.

Barkhuizen got a call on January 10 from the principal “informing me that after consulting with the MEC ‘they’ had decided to suspend me with full benefits with immediate effect… The MEC publicly announced that ‘he’ decided that I am suspended. I was not granted a hearing prior to my suspension.”

In court papers lodged by Solidarity, they explained she was only supervising the class while their teacher, Elsabe Olivier, was with a parent. Olivier was not suspended.

The photograph of four black children seated in a corner away from the white pupils caused outrage across the country, leading to political parties protesting against racism at the school.

Barkhuizen and Solidarity filed an urgent application to get her suspension lifted and for her to be immediately reinstated.

In her version of events, Barkhuizen said she was not responsible for seating the children and was only supervising them because her class was next door. She said she took the photograph to send to parents who were enquiring about their children.

“I emphasised that the picture … was taken in another class and that I had no hand in allocating seating arrangements in that class. My explanation again came to naught.”

A parent of one of the black pupils had contacted Barkhuizen, outraged at the seating arrangements. She and Olivier reported this to the principal and the chairperson of the governing body, who supported the teachers, she said.

Solidarity welcomed the lifting of the suspension. “We are pleased with the ruling and we are grateful for Elana’s sake that a form of justice has prevailed for her. However, we are still disappointed that we had to take this battle all the way to court,” Dr Dirk Hermann, Solidarity’s chief executive said.

According to Hermann, Elana, together with so many little kids, the school and the broader community were all deeply hurt because of political opportunism. “This incident is a lesson for everyone in South Africa about how democracy should not work,” Hermann said.

Solidarity is also calling on Lehari not to pursue any further action against other teachers at Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke, because the damage he has done is enough. “It is time for him to offer an apology to all role-players involved who have been hurt in the process. A mature politician would bring the matter to a close rather than to perpetuate it,” Hermann concluded.

(Compiled by Charles Cilliers)

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