Pretoria - Suspended Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke teacher Elana Barkhuizen said she “detested” racism, especially in any education environment.
“I pride myself on my devotion to teach all learners, regardless of race or gender, with equal passion and energy,” Barkhuizen said in an affidavit filed at the Johannesburg Labour Court on Thursday.
Labour union Solidarity will next Thursday, January 24, approach the court on an urgent basis to set aside Barkhuizen’s suspension and to allow her to immediately return to the school.
She was suspended last Thursday - a day after the first day of the 2019 academic year - following a race fury when it was claimed that she had seated black Grade R pupils apart from their white counterparts because she was a racist.
This was after she posted four pictures on a WhatsApp group to assure worried parents that their children were happy and doing well. One of the pictures showed black pupils sitting in a group, apart from the white pupils.
Barkhuizen said the offending picture did not even depict her class, but that of another teacher who was at the time speaking to a parent about an issue.
That teacher asked her to also supervise her class while she spoke to the parent.
A day after the picture was posted, Barkhuizen received a telephone call from the school’s headmaster, Alwyn Henning, who informed her that she was suspended.
Six minutes later North west MEC for Education, Sello Lehari, publicly announced on the school hall’s stage that she was suspended.
Barkhuizen said he labelled her as a racist - all due to the pictures which were “inaccurately and incorrectly” presented to the public and the media.
In explaining the events leading up to the fateful day and the day itself, Barkhuizen said parents were, prior to the first school day, informed of the seating arrangements, which was done for its practicality. They had no issue with it.
Parents were invited to school on January 7 and 8 to, among others, acquaint themselves with the teacher and the outlay of the classroom.
She said she explained her approach to seating arrangements with reference to individual learners’ needs and requirements.
She explained she sometimes separated boys and girls at first for their own advantage and for an effective teaching approach.
As the school was in the past predominantly Afrikaans, it used interpreters to assist with translation. The seating arrangements were thus often made in relation to communication difficulties arising from language barriers.
The seating arrangements, however, changed from time to time depending on the needs.
This was explained to the parents and they did not voice any complaints, she said.
On the day of the school opening she took four pictures - two of teacher Elsabe Olivier’s class and two of her own class and posted it on the WhatsApp group. The offending picture was not from her class.
Barkhuizen mentioned that a few days prior to this incident, a father phoned her and enquired about the former 10% discount certain parents received in school fees. She explained to him this no longer applied and he was unhappy about it.
Shortly after the offending picture was posted, the parent again phoned her and he was upset that his child was separated from the white children.
“I explained to him that no separation is done according to race, but that the children are often moved around on the first day to accommodate their specific needs...and to accommodate different daily activities. The picture he took umbrage with was taken in the other class and I had no hand in allocating seating arrangements in that class”
Barkhuizen said she advised the upset father to take the matter up with the headmaster. The latter subsequently told her the father - only identified in court papers as Mr Modise - laid complaints against her for “sending pictures of a segregated classroom.”
The bomb exploded the next day, when the picture went viral and she was labeled a racist, Barkhuizen said.
"Political parties protested in front of the school and things became so volatile that that the school was evacuated. Some parents could not fetch their children and she stayed behind to look after them. This is a fact “conveniently not reported by the media and the MEC,” Barkhuizen stated.
Apart from denying any wrongdoing, she said the MEC was not entitled to suspend her, as she did not work for the department. She was employed by the school to teach Grade Rs, due to her vast experience working with small children.
Neither the school nor the school have yet filed their opposing papers.