Afrikaans news site Netwerk24 has reported that the teacher, Elana Barkhuizen, at the centre of the racism storm in Schweizer-Reneke, North West, has fled the town.
Those close to the matter told the site that she was not guilty of anything other than taking the photo of black and white children sitting at different desks, and then sending it to a parents’ WhatsApp group.
One person said it had not even been her classroom.
It was reported earlier today that the school did not open for classes this morning, although the school was in fact open. Most pupils were, however, absent, making it difficult to resume teaching activities.
The cause was reportedly that white parents were concerned about safety issues, and decided not to send their children to class again following a discussion in a parents’ WhatsApp group.
The channel reports that black parents who brought their children to class on Friday morning were surprised to find the classrooms mostly empty.
The school has 19 teachers, all of whom are white. The school also uses Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.
Yesterday, a group of angry black parents told North West Education member of the executive council (MEC) Sello Lehari that they want the principal suspended.
Lehari was at the school to further investigate an alleged racial incident after a picture depicting four black children seated at a corner, separated from 18 white children in the Grade R class, went viral on social media on Wednesday.
The teacher reportedly sent the picture to parents in a WhatsApp group showing them that the children were settled well on their first day at school.
Lehari annouced that Barkhuizen was suspended with immediate effect. He was speaking to community members after he had a closed meeting with the school management and other stakeholders.
He said Barkhuizen was suspended to allow for the investigation to proceed unhindered.
“The school explained that the black learners were seated at a separate table because they did not understand English and Afrikaans. We did not accept their explanation,” he said to a rousing applause.
Black community members painted a picture of deep-rooted racism at the school and the town in general and asked him to suspend the principal as well because the principal was the accounting officer.
“The principal must go. You cannot suspend the teacher and leave the principal, the principal is the accounting officer,” said one parent.
In a statement on Thursday the school said the photo was “a reflection of a single moment in a classroom”, and not an indication of school policy.
They also explained that the photo reflected an isolated moment and the children do in fact interact and are integrated. Other photos have since emerged showing an integrated classroom on the same day, though it may be that these photos were taken only after the outrage began on Wednesday.
“Schweizer-Reneke Primary School is proud of its integrated character. The school’s ethos is built on inclusivity as a reflection of the broader South African society,” said the school governing body’s chairperson, Jozeph du Plessis.
In a statement on Friday afternoon, the DA’s premier candidate in North West called for calm to prevail.
“The DA in the North West calls for the immediate resumption of classes at the Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke. Our children and a promise of a better future must come first.
“Following the unfortunate incident of alleged segregation of children, action has already been taken, and we should all allow the investigation into the incident to follow its course.
“We call for cool heads. It is only when we work together that we will be successful in building One South Africa for All.
“The DA reiterates its call on South Africans to remain vigilant in guarding against political populist rhetoric, especially in this election year, that seeks to divide people on the basis of race,” added McGluwa.
The Young Communist League in the Dr Ruth Segomotsi Mompati had said on Thursday the MEC should not just suspend the teacher but, should also close the school temporarily for the affected learners to heal properly.
“Racism makes black learners to feel inferior. It is a mechanism white used to force blacks to drop out of school. The racial act aimed to only have white learners at this school. What happened at this school affected learners, the school must be closed to allow the affected learners to heal properly,” said Pule Ramabodu, a district committee member.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) said it would fight racism at the school to the bitter end.
“It [racism] has been here for a long time, we came here in the morning to picket and send a clear message to the department of education that now is the time to transform the school,” said Thabo Sehloho.
“We also called for the suspension of the principal,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Forum 4 Service Delivery (F4SD) said it would ensure that the affected teacher was held accountable and the SA Council of Educators (Sace) to deregister her.
“It cannot be tolerated to see our future generation subject to such segregation. When confronted harder this school said that the sitting arrangement was as a result of black kids are not proficient in English. This reason is unacceptable. We as F4SD will ensure that the teacher who caused this debacle is held accountable and her SACE is revoked,” said party leader Mbahare Kekana.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) had said on Thursday it welcomed the suspension of the teacher.
“Following the meeting with the school principal it transpired that the class teacher, Ms Elana Barkhuizen, was suspended with immediate effect pending an investigation. The DA welcomes this as well as the investigation that will follow. The DA strongly opposes segregation of young children on any grounds. As a country we need to recommit to Nelson Mandela’s ideals of reconciliation and the rejection of racism,” said McGluwa.
Investigators were expected to present their report next week.
At the school, the situation was tense on Thursday morning while black parents chanted outside the locked gate, white parents held the gate to prevent black parents from breaking it. On the other side of the school, white parents, some armed, broke the fence and removed their children from the school.
The visibly shocked children were transported in vans.
One irate black parent said she felt her child was not safe at the school.
“Our children are not safe, I was shocked to see young children in that position. The incident happened at a class next to my child class. She was not affected but this segregation cannot continue. Our children cannot experience what our parents went through during apartheid,” she said.