Teacher Elana Barkhuizen returned to the school on Wednesday last week for the first time since a racial storm erupted after she sent a picture – seemingly depicting racial segregation in another teacher’s class – to parents in a closed WhatsApp group on the first day of school in January this year. The photograph depicts white and black pupils sitting at separate desks in the classroom.
A parent – who allegedly holds a grudge against the school relating to school fees – distributed the picture on social media.
This caused a massive uproar which ultimately led to Barkhuizen’s suspension.
She claimed that the black children had been seated separately at that time because they could not understand Afrikaans and were given access to a Setswana interpreter.
Other pictures depicting the children mingling openly had also been distributed. Two black parents confirmed Barkhuizen’s version of events.
Suspension ruled unlawful
At the end of January, the Labour Court in Johannesburg ruled that her suspension by the school governing body (SGB) and Department of Education was unlawful, in part because she had not been given an opportunity to clarify her version of the events.
While she could return to the school immediately, she opted for a few days’ leave first.
After meeting with the SGB on Tuesday last week, she returned to her post the following day.
“It’s great being back with the kids. Children from all grades have been giving me loads of hugs and kisses – it has been overwhelming.”
Barkhuizen sat on a rug with her Grade R pupils and explained that she had been away because she was being bullied.
“Every time I now leave the room, they want to know where I’m going, how long I’ll be gone and whether I’ll be coming back. Then I reassure them that I’m going to the staff room or loo for a few minutes.”
Barkhuizen said she returned to the school without much fanfare to avoid causing any further uproar.
Kids were ‘heartbroken’
“The older kids have a better understanding of what happened. They told me they were heartbroken about the way everything unfolded. I am so grateful to the many learners and people in the local community, as well as people from all over the country who have supported me. I am amazed. My loyalty has always been with the school, my colleagues and the SGB.”
However, Barkhuizen says she remains uncertain about the future, as talks between her and the SGB have not been finalised as yet.
The tension is amplified by the fact that the department, the Human Rights Commission (HRC) and the South African Teachers’ Council had not yet completed their inquiries into the matter.
“I haven’t heard from them. In the meantime, I’m focusing on the children.”
Advocate André Gaum, the HRC commissioner responsible for basic education, said on Thursday that its inquiry was at an advanced stage.
Freddy Sepeng, spokesperson of the North West education department, said its inquiry was nearing completion. “As soon as we have reached a conclusion, we will make an announcement and call a media conference.”
North West Education MEC Sello Lehari earlier said that more staff members could face suspension once the department concluded its inquiry.