The Wesley Neumann story is the story activists, priests and politicians have all silently abandoned.
In 1980, reggae superstar Robert Nesta “Bob” Marley released his Uprising album, with his compelling ‘Redemption Song. The lyrics include these immortal lines “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; None but ourselves can free our mind … Cause all I ever had, Redemption songs, All I ever had.”
Neumann, now 38, was 33 when he was appointed the principal of Heathfield High School in 2018. He was fired, after lengthy disciplinary processes, for disobeying an instruction from the Western Cape Education Department to reopen his school during the Covid-19 pandemic. Neumann, aware that he did not have all the Covid resources to protect his learners, refused to open his school.
He was charged by his employer with disobeying a lawful instruction. He is, as far as knowledge stretches, the only school principal in the world who was fired because he made a decision to protect his learners and their families during a global pandemic. The Department of Basic Education stated that schools should be ready to open on June 8, 2020, provided all Covid protections were in place.
The WCED stated that it was ready to open schools on June 1, 2020. Neumann’s school was not provided with all its Covoid resources to sanitise the school and protect human life and had 15 teachers off sick with Covid-19 out of a staff of 31. Many of his support staff, who had to sanitise the school daily, also were off sick.
Neumann decided to open his school a week later. He lost his job because of that decision. During this same period, other schools in the Western Cape made similar decisions, with no disciplinary consequences.
During the tenure of the former WCED MEC for education, who was also the MEC during the pandemic, some school principals were found guilty of gross financial misconduct. They received the proverbial slap on the wrist and continued in their positions.
During his various hearings, Neumann was offered a demotion. He rejected this. In the dismantling of oppressive narratives, which in post-oppression societies must be diligently and continuously done, one of the most difficult narratives to dismantle is the power of the system.
The system produces “official press releases and ”hearings“that all have the appearance of procedural and substantive fairness. But it all tends to be an act of performative justice. The core of performative justice is to appear to be fair and just, but essentially its only purpose is to protect the power of the system.
Neumann was an activist who became a principal, who thus became a target.
Other offending principals who were not activist-principals were no threat to the system. Neumann, a husband, and father of three young children has, after being dismissed by the system, been equally abandoned by activists and the systems of justice he defended with such commitment on behalf of others. A silence has come over the Wesley Neumann case.
People inside the government told Neumann, on condition of anonymity, that he had become a target and a threat, and that the performative justice showcase was a classic tool to get rid of those who had freed themselves of mental slavery and no longer feared the power of the system. The system doesn't recognise or respect epochs. The system doesn’t categorise itself into neatly demarcated apartheid and post-apartheid eras. The system’s only concern is for its power, and in particular, its power over others.
In 1772 priest and former slave trader John Newton wrote the hymn Amazing Grace that contains the lyrics “that saved a wretch like me”. Marley, 200 years later, realised that the mental slavery of both the oppressor and oppressed was still an important freedom struggle. Neumann, 250 years later, is finding himself leading the fight to destroy the mental slavery of of the system. He should not be doing this alone.
* Lorenzo Davids.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
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