‘Attacks on black pupils must end’

A coalition of community members and parents intends to march on Hoër Volkskool in Heidelberg, southeast of Johannesburg, on October 7 in protest against what they say is long-standing racism at the school.

This comes three weeks after Gauteng education MEC Barbara Creecy told the provincial legislature that her department's interventions dating back to 2010 appeared to have borne fruit. 

"A number of interventions have been put in place at the school to promote unity and ensure proper learning and teaching," she said. 

Departmental spokesperson Gershwin Chuenyane told the Mail & Guardian: "There have been allegations of racism in the past. At the time the department worked with the school governing body and the [then] newly appointed principal [Henjan van der Hyde] on a diversity programme and indications were that at the time it was successful."

But black pupils, parents and community members do not agree. They have formed the coalition, the Lesedi Education Forum, following a fistfight in August that the forum described as the latest outbreak of racial conflict at the school.

Creecy told the legislature that "17 learners were charged with misconduct related to racism" following the fight. 

Sixteen of these pupils — eight white and eight black — received expulsion sentences suspended for varying periods. However, one black pupil was expelled.

The forum, comprising community members, parents and local branches of the ANC and alliance partners, planned to march shortly after the August fight but was stopped by a court interdict that the governing body obtained on the grounds that it would have disrupted matrics writing their trial exams. 

The governing body was supported by rights lobby group AfriForum in its court application. 

Hurter Spies, the law firm co-owned by the group's legal spokesperson Willie Spies, represented the governing body in the main seat of the Gauteng division of the High Court. 

The forum expects to attract about 3 000 people to join the march. 

"We can assure them that we're going to march and raise our concerns as the community of Heidelberg," said Sipho Nhlengethwa, an ANC local branch leader and member of the forum. 

"We want bring the attacks on our black learners to an end. We want to raise our frustration with the governing body. We need the school to be nonracial."

But Cornelius Human, a member of the school's governing body responsible for its legal affairs, said the problems at the school originated 15 years ago. 

"This is an Afrikaans-medium school, and that has certain ramifications. That brings us to the other story of the school, which comes from 1998. The department during that era [admitted that] there's a space problem in this area. They've sat with the problem since 1998."

He said the department spoke about building an English-medium school within "one or two years". 

"It was agreed that [Hoër Volkskool] would take two classes of English [per grade each year] to assist," said Human. 

Danie Fourie, a parent with a child at Volkskool, challenged those making claims of racism against the school to "look themselves in the mirror".

"I know there are such allegations, but some people are blowing things out of proportion," he told the M&G.

Considering that some of the school's top-performing pupils academically and in rugby are black, Fourie said those adhering to [the school's] policies have equal chances of success at the school.

"There is officially no racism at the school. As a South African, I'm pleased with the way things are done at the school. There are good policies in place. We don't have blacks and whites in the school. That is why I'm glad my child is at the school."

Human said it was discipline, not racism, that was the major problem the school faced. 

He challenged the Gauteng education department to release the report from the 2010 investigation Creecy had referred to in the legislature.

Since that investigation, department officials "would come to the school and ask us what we are doing about racism. 

"We asked them: 'Please give us the report so we can see what are the racist things that you are referring to, so that we can address them,'" he said. 

"What we found ourselves was just a situation with wild allegations, with no substance — and we're expected to act on them. It's exactly the same situation that we have now."

Hoër Volkskool is the only secondary school in Heidelberg itself. Though it is an Afrikaans-medium school, parents from the neighbouring township of Ratanda have been enrolling their children at the school for a number of years. 

Some told the M&G this was because high schools in Ratanda were overcrowded and their children had been educated at English-medium and Afrikaans-medium public primary schools in Heidelberg, where neither isiZulu nor Sesotho is taught. 

But the governing body has decided to phase out English classes — a move that has upset parents even more. 

"They've begun a process to ensure our children no longer go to the school," one Ratanda parent complained.

Human confirmed that the school is no longer admitting pupils who don't speak Afrikaans. This is meant to compel the department to open an English-medium school in the area, he said.

"We want quality education at Volkskool. As long as the solution is to fill the school with learners, quality education will fly out the window.

"If you sit with 50 or 60 learners in a classroom then how can you have quality education? 

"They are supposed to build another school. As long as 14 years ago there was too little space for children in this area."

Nhlengethwa said this decision would force pupils to enrol at schools further away from their homes — such as Springs, Germiston and Vereeniging. 

But Human defended the move: "Are you saying there's no place for Afrikaans schools in this country? You are not racist if you want an Afrikaans school."

Chuenyane said the department has "identified a site for a new English-medium high school in the town of Heidelberg, which [we] plan to have up and running in 2014 to cater for the demand for an English-medium high school in the area".

But three weeks ago the M&G visited the piece of land earmarked for the school and saw no indication that construction had started. 

On the governing body's decision to bar pupils who don't speak Afrikaans, Chuenyane said the implication of the Supreme Court of Appeal's judgment late last year in the Rivonia Primary School case "is that the department is currently limited in its ability to intervene in school admissions where the governing body takes a decision not to admit certain learners".

This case involved the school's refusal to admit one pupil on the grounds that it was full. The appeal court ruled that the governing body had the final say on admissions, not the provincial department. 

However, "this judgment is currently on appeal in the Constitutional Court", said Chuenyane.

After this story went to print in the course of last week, in preparation for the Mail & Guardian's Friday print edition, the Constitutional Court delivered judgment in the Rivonia Primary School case that Gauteng Education Department's Chuenyane referred to as still pending.

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