Baseless allegations undermine consensus needed to confront genuine cases of racism - The Citizen

The name Elana Barkhuizen returned to public attention last week, although one wonders just how many of us would remember precisely what that name means.

Terence Corrigan

The name Elana Barkhuizen returned to public attention last week, although one wonders just how many of us would remember precisely what that name means.

Barkhuizen is a teacher in Schweizer-Reneke in the North West who, for a brief period in early 2019, became the putative face of racism.

She was no such thing. The release of an investigative report by the South African Human Rights Commission – four years after the events – sets out just how badly she was wronged.

For those who have forgotten, the centrepiece of the issue was a photo of a class of Grade R pupils, which showed a cluster of black children seated at one set of desks, while their white peers were sitting elsewhere.

Indignation set in, with noisy and threatening protest action by political parties and “community members”. The offending photo spread rapidly on social media. An intersection between racism and wrongdoing against children – by a teacher no less! – stoked a unique sense of outrage.

The provincial MEC turned up and addressed “community members” announcing that the offending teacher, one “Ellen Barkhuizen” would be suspended.

Not only did the MEC fail to get Barkhuizen’s name right, but pretty much everything else in the public narrative proved to be false too. For one thing, Barkhuizen had taken the photo, but it didn’t depict her class or any seating arrangements for which she had been responsible.

It was taken in a neighbouring classroom. The seating arrangements had been intended to assist nervous tots to adjust to the new environment by grouping them according to language preference (though in fairness, the teacher responsible had mistakenly assigned a child conversant in Afrikaans and another unable to speak Setswana to the table at which the latter children were grouped).

Another photo – taken less than six minutes after the first – showed black and white children in the same class seated together.

It also turns out that a parent of one of the black children had actually queried what looked like segregation, but had accepted the proffered explanation – this was a temporary measure aimed at helping the incoming class to adjust. In fact, according to the report, none of the parents showed any anger.

But all of this seems to have counted for little against the anger of the “community” and the zealousness of the political estate. On the basis of a photograph – and in the absence of any real reflection – there was outrage.

And so a concern for the well-being of children produced a slew of abuses. Helpfully, the commission’s report sets them out.

The schoolchildren in general were victimised by the “community” protests, which left them scared and deprived them of schooling; the children in the class had their identities shared, violating their own right to privacy (those who gamely shared these images during the height of the controversy should be ashamed); Barkhuizen had her reputation trashed and had to go into hiding with her family for fear of reprisals.

The commission found the allegations of unfair discrimination against the black children to be “not substantiated”. The tragedy was that the balance of evidence available at the time suggested as much.

Perhaps it’s apposite that this abusive affair involved a school, for that might prompt some learning. Barkhuizen and those children are all specific, unique human beings, not mere avatars for an ideological agenda. Those who framed their outrage in a vocabulary of human dignity might do well to remember that.

Those who framed their outrage as abhorrence of racism might also keep in mind that baseless, promiscuous and self-serving allegations undermine the consensus needed to confront genuine cases of racism.

– Corrigan is project manager at the Institute of Race Relations