Vereeniging - A sense of animosity, division, and hatred was palpable at the Hoërskool Overvaal in Vereeniging in southern Gauteng this week as predominantly black South Africans littered and vandalised streets in protest against the school’s policy of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction.
On the other side of the school premises was a large crowd of mainly white parents and community members, whose children attend the school and who would prefer the status quo, with Afrikaans as the sole medium of instruction, to continue.
Rubber bullets, stun grenades, water cannon, a petrol bomb, verbal insults, and offensive gestures were commonplace outside the school as the black community members pushed for the adoption of English and the scrapping of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction.
Some among the black protesters said they did not mind if the school adopted both English and Afrikaans as medium of instruction. From the Afrikaans-speaking side, however, one community member intimately involved in the school activities made it clear to the throngs of journalists covering the stand-off that the school should be maintained as an Afrikaans-speaking institution.
Protesters outside the school said their fury was sparked by the “exclusion from the only school in our neighbourhood simply because we cannot speak the colonial language Afrikaans”. One protester shouted that the young black protesters were at the school to carry the baton where struggle icon Hector Pieterson left off in 1976.
Tempers flared after the High Court in Pretoria ruled that the 55 school pupils who wanted to be admitted and taught in English could not be admitted due to capacity constraints.
“I have come to a conclusion that the school has reached its objective on entry level learner capacity. The head of department can, in any event, declare it full,” Judge Bill Prinsloo ruled in a packed court on Monday.
Hoerskool Overvaal and the Gauteng education department were embroiled in a court wrangle, with the school insisting that it could not admit the 55 pupils because of capacity constraints and a lack of resources. In his ruling, Prinsloo said that if the department had made the effort, it would know there was an abundance of space at neighbouring schools, all of which used English as the medium of instruction.
Probably, as one passer-by running for cover while police fired rubber bullets to disperse protesters at the school remarked, the ugly scenes witnessed this week with black South Africans on one side and white South Africans on the other and armed police separating them from physical contact at the school, is a microcosm of the deep racial and ethnic divisions in many communities, particularly within the education system.
In October last year, violence erupted at the Klipspruit West Secondary School in Johannesburg’s Soweto as racial tensions boiled over the hiring of a black principal in July. It is believed that the largely coloured community wanted a coloured candidate to take over as school principal. The conflict also exposed racial tensions among black and coloured teachers within the school.
In 2016, Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi apologised to black pupils at Pretoria High School for Girls (PHSG) after racism and victimisation was confirmed in a probe he instituted.
“The department extends its apology to particularly the affected black learners for going through such a traumatic and humiliating experience of racial abuse and victimisation,” Lesufi said at the time. The probe carried out by a law firm confirmed that incidents of racial abuse and victimisation were a reality at the school.
In August 2016, tempers flared as black students at the PHSG were up in arms over what they called racist incidents relating to the institution’s policies regarding hair styles. At the time, some of the girls told Lesufi they were made to straighten their hair and avoid African styles, such as the Afro. Others alleged they had been called “monkeys”.
The activism shown by the young PHSG pupils warmed many in South Africa, and the world, in a country where student activism was at the centre of the struggle to free the nation of apartheid.
Similarities were drawn from the young PHSG pupils' struggle and the undying spirit of young struggle stalwarts such as Hector Pieterson, who stood firm against the unequal and unjust system of apartheid which ensured division among blacks and whites on the basis of race.
Pieterson became the face of the students’ movement, particularly during the 1976 Soweto schools uprising in apartheid South Africa, after a newspaper photograph of the dying Pieterson being carried by a fellow pupil was published across the world, placing the spotlight on the apartheid regime.
Pieterson was one of the first casualties of the 1976 uprising against Afrikaans being implemented in schools, along with English. He was 13 at the time of his death. A postmortem revealed that Pieterson was killed by a shot fired directly at him and not by a bullet "ricocheting off the ground" as police claimed at the time.
African News Agency/ANA