Round one to Mikro

It took just 10 minutes for Judge Wilfred Thring to rule that Mikro Primary’s school governing body (SGB) had the right to make its own decisions about language policy, and that the Western Cape minister of education, Cameron Dugmore, was wrong to force the school to accommodate English-speaking learners.

The action, brought by the Afrikaans-medium Mikro Primary School and its SGB, arose in response to an instruction from Dugmore and the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) in December last year that Mikro must accommodate 21 English-language Grade 1 learners. The WCED claimed that these learners could not be placed elsewhere in the Kuils River area.

In his judgement, made late last month, Thring was scathing of the WCED for its underhand strategy to force Mikro to comply with its instruction. “On the false premise that a nearby alternative school could not accommodate the 21 children, the WCED used the unfounded threat that they would have to be accommodated at a school for the severely mentally handicapped,” said Thring.

The WCED was prepared to use this dreadful threat as a lever to ensure that [its] wishes were not thereafter thwarted, said the judge. Describing the WCED’s action as highly reprehensible, Thring ordered that the WCED must pay all legal costs – including those of the parents and Mikro. An estimate by a legal expert put the total bill at about R850 000.

Erhard Wolf, head of Mikro’s SGB, said: “We in Kuils River are a middle-class community If we had lost this court case, we would really be in financial difficulty. Even though costs were awarded to us, we’ll be lucky if that covers 70% of the total bill.”

The judgement was greeted with disappointment by Kuils River parents who were in court to hear the fate of their Grade 1 children, currently attending school at Mikro.

Thring ruled that the WCED has until March 18 to come up with a suitable plan to relocate the 21 Grade 1 learners. If no alternative can be found, the learners will be allowed to stay at the school for the remainder of 2005. Thring slated the department officials’ conduct as unlawful interference in the management of the school.

He further noted: “It is undoubtedly true that each of the 21 families here concerned have the right to choose the official language or languages in which they wish their children to be educated. It is also no doubt desirable and convenient for a child to be educated at the school nearest to his or her home, if that is practicable.

“It is also correct that when 40 or more children in a particular grade between Grades 1 and 6 at a particular school request tuition in a particular official language, the provincial education department is placed under an obligation by the norms and standards to provide it. However, in my view none of these things can justify the [provincial minister and the WCED] summarily riding roughshod over the school’s language policy and treating it as if it did not exist, or did not matter.”

When the case first made the news in January, Dugmore joined a spirited African National Congress toyi-toyi on the steps of the Cape High Court. This brought him the condemnation of Helen Zille, Democratic Alliance education spokesperson, who stated that [Dugmore] “has revealed what his case against Mikro Primary School is all about.

“He has shown that it is a party-political assault by the ANC against Afrikaans-medium institutions [that] are required to sacrifice their language rights in the interests of the ANC’s definition of transformation.” She added that this was part of an ongoing nationwide harassment campaign against Afrikaans-medium schools.

Just how emotive the issue of Afrikaans-medium schooling is was evident in the statement made by Dugmore’s spokesperson, Gert Witbooi, following Thring’s judgement: “The issue of language has caused much heartbreak and sadness in this country, and in particular in the Western Cape province, where historically, Afrikaans was forced upon the black African communities, and some coloured (mostly rural) communities.”

Witbooi went on to say that, out of about 1 500 primary schools in the Western Cape, about 800 are single Afrikaans-medium schools. This constitutes a disproportionate number of single Afrikaans-medium schools in relation to the demographic composition of the population in the Western Cape province.

In the meantime, Mikro Primary, with its 951 learners from grades R to 7 (14% of whom are non-white, says Nico Walters, Mikro’s principal), is struggling to keep it business as usual.

Wolf has three children at Mikro. My kids asked me, ‘When are the English children going to leave our school?’. “I’ve been very harsh with regard to them understanding that this is not against the English children,” he says.

“This is against wrong processes. If we feel strongly enough about something, we must stand up for what we believe in, and if necessary, be prepared to relinquish something. That is the most important lesson, especially where we have such a David and Goliath situation. What were the chances this little Mikro could stand up against such a massive organisation?”

While Mikro’s defiant stance has been vindicated by the recent ruling, Wolf’s appeal is for reconciliation with the WCED: “We have had big differences of opinion but we must look to the future. That future is together. And there was no winner in this court case, just losers. Mikro just lost a little less than the education department.”

But for the WCED, the legal battle is only just beginning. Witbooi stated: “[Cameron and the WCED] will seek leave to appeal against the high court’s decision directly to the Constitutional Court on an urgent basis. Alternatively, leave will be sought from the high court to appeal to the Supreme Court of Appeal as soon as possible. We are confident that a case can be made that it is in the interests of justice that the Constitutional Court hear this very important matter as soon as possible.”

When asked how far Mikro is prepared to take the fight, Wolf responded: “How much are we prepared to give up? I ask myself: What are the tools our children should receive to build the new South Africa? We need to expose them to all of our country’s cultural groups – and protect them against the adverse effects of society, not culture”.

Public debate about the issue shows how quickly a language issue becomes one of race. As one late-night caller to a Cape Town talk show argued with sheer frustration on the night of the judgement: “This whole bloody Mikro mess highlights the old battlelines between Afrikaans and English. Is the Western Cape one of the last bastions of racial segregation, a shield to keep institutions like schools racially pure?”

What the law says:
The Bill of Human Rights (Chapter 2 of the Constitution of South Africa) states in Section 29 that: every public institution has the right to teach in the official language of its choice where it is reasonably possible; and

  • the government has to consider all reasonable education alternatives, including single-medium schools, with due allowance for fairness, feasibility and the correcting of racial discrimination through legislation of the past (when Afrikaans and English were the only official languages).
  • The South African Schools Act states in Section 6 that: the governing body of a public school can determine the language policy of the school;
  • if a governing body of a public school can determine the language policy, it has to be in accordance with the Constitution, the Schools Act, provincial legislation and any norms and standards on the usage of language in education;
  • the policy may not discriminate against any learner on racial grounds; and
  • the minister of education may set the norms and standards for language policies in public schools.

    Extract from Help! My Child Is Going To School by Cornia Pretorius, Hennie Steyn and Charles Wolhuter

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