Education department backs Maritzburg College pupils’ shirt protest

It is hypocritical for schools to teach pupils to be politically conscious and then discourage them from voicing political views, says Elijah Mhlanga, spokesperson for the department of basic education.

Just how far schoolchildren can go when expressing their political views was the subject of a heated debate this week, following the furore over three pupils from Maritzburg College in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, after a picture of them went viral on social media last week. The pupils were holding school shirts on which were written: “EFF our last hope of getting our land back” and “loading 2019” with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) logo.

A Twitter storm followed when England cricketer Kevin Pietersen, a Maritzburg College old boy, tweeted: “Ummmmmm @Maritzcollege WHAT THE HELL IS THIS? Total disrespect for a once GREAT school! Are you joking?!?!”

Responses — on the right to freedom of expression, the 1976 student uprisings and other issues —flowed in rapidly. And before long EFF leader Julius Malema weighed in, tweeting: “I’m told @MaritzCollege is threatening to suspend these fighters for expressing their political views, we are ready for them. KZN be ready.”

It then emerged that the school had charged the pupils for, among other things, contravening the school’s code and the Schools Act, which prohibits party political activities during school hours. Charges also included “racial” or “racially charged” speech and one of speech that was “a threat or an act of violence”.

But Mhlanga said that, in terms of the Schools Act, the pupils had not conducted party political activities.

“What these boys were doing was not party political activities. It was them saying how they feel about the land issue and in so doing they associated themselves with a particular political party,” Mhlanga said. “That is acceptable because they did not use hate speech and they did not use any racial language, they didn’t campaign for [the] EFF.”

He said their conduct was reasonable “and we don’t feel there was a need for them to be sanctioned in the way the school wanted it to happen”.

About four years ago the department entered into a partnership with the Electoral Commission of South Africa to teach pupils about democracy, Mhlanga said, precisely because they want them to be aware of what is happening around them politically.

“So in fact we teach political activism in schools … But it must be done in an orderly way, not during schooling hours and it must not be disruptive,” he said.

The Daily Vox reported that the school shirts were part of a long-standing tradition, when matric pupils write farewell wishes and personal views on their school shirts on their last official day of school.

The KwaZulu-Natal department of education stopped the school in its tracks from disciplining the pupils.

Instead, it said it would conduct a full-scale investigation into claims of racism at the school.

“We have received a number of allegations relating to racism, which could be a reason for learners to retaliate in a certain manner,” the department said in a statement.

Education expert Professor Mary Metcalfe believes politics cannot be separated from education.

“It is already in the curriculum — you find politics in history, arts, literature. The role of education is to develop students with reasoned arguments using evidence, students who can argue and still respect the views of others,” she said.

Metcalfe said the pupils at Maritzburg College were merely practising an old tradition and did nothing wrong. She said the onus was on the school to act in a reasonable way and to respect the views of the pupils.

Congress of South African Students president John Macheke said pupils should be allowed to express their political views, as long as it does not disrupt teaching and learning.

He said schools hid behind their codes of conduct when they wanted to suppress the views of pupils.

Macheke added that some schools failed to inform pupils that they should be included in drafting the code of conduct because they fear pupils will become aware of their rights and express themselves more freely.

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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