Schweizer-Reneke: Beyond the image of racism - Daily Maverick

5 February 2019 - The dust has settled in Schweizer, or has it? In the attempts to validate the initial charge of racism against the teacher, something profound has been broken.

Gabriel Crouse

South Africa’s schools entered 2019 in a furore of incidents centred on race. The first – and so far most widely reported on – was Laerskoor Schweizer-Reneke, where Grade Rs beginning their school careers were placed at tables according to race. The dust has settled in Schweizer, or has it? In the attempts to validate the initial charge of racism against the teacher, something profound has been broken.

When the North West town of Schweizer-Reneke hit the headlines it was with the hammer print of sure-thing racism. Then it turned out that the first teacher who was suspended, Elana Barkhuizen, merely took “that photograph” – of a class of five-year-olds, four black children at one table and 12 white at another. She was not the class teacher. Barkhuizen’s suspension was demonstrably premature, extra procedural and has since been reversed.

Good for Barkhuizen, goes the orthodox line. Judgement was misdirected but not exactly premature; the utmost crime of racism occurred, someone is guilty. Proper procedure must be followed and proper procedure must find someone other than the exonerated Barkhuizen to be racist. The hammer must come down on someone – the class teacher, whoever she is.

Some parents living a block from Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke, who asked to remain anonymous, tell me flatly that Barkhuizen is “a hero” to them. They say Barkhuizen deliberately took the photograph “to expose” her colleague for seating the students “in a racist way”. They say “that kind of thing takes bravery, you know, especially in this town”.

It was wrong to fire Barkhuizen, they aver, and perhaps the mistake was made out of stupidity. And then the conspiratorial offering: “You know, maybe someone was trying to punish her for exposing the racist one – that’s how it is here with the powerful white racists. They will even fire one of their own.”

I speak to these parents several days after Barkhuizen’s testimony goes public. In it, she explained that her action was nothing like whistle–blowing. She was trying to help her colleague reassure parents with a few pictures of their children getting on with their first day of school, images they thought would be welcome. Other photos were taken; in some, the children were seated in patterns that mixed races.

I point this out to the hardworking, sophisticated, anonymous parents, but they tell me that I must have misunderstood. They hold their line. “She [Barkhuizen] was exposing the racists, she is a hero,” they insist. Asked how they know this, they “just know it”. They do not even know Barkhuizen’s name, let alone “that teacher” who was actually in charge of the class.

Hearsay evidence like this from anonymous parents in Schweizer-Reneke is the threadout of which my fellow journalists have woven their stories of righteous damnation. I am much the same – dependent on witnesses in trying circumstances with mutually annihilating stories hurtling on to the record. We share the duty to exercise doubt; to test the witness. Likewise, we share the duty to test our own preconceptions.

One parent who is happy to have his name on the record, who volunteers both his first names, is Doctor Thabiso Maolwane. He has sent several children to Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke and his youngest started in “that teacher’s” class this year.

Doctor says he was late on the first day of school, and so saw all the other children already seated. One chair was unoccupied. The picture before him was just like “that photograph”, minus one child, his own. He asked why the children were seated like so. The teacher explained that she put the children together that way thinking it would comfort them during the pre-play introduction.

The teacher made assumptions about familiarity and language to support her guess at what would make the five-year–olds most comfortable.

Doctor was assured that all children would be cared for equally and that they would be mixed up momentarily, that seating plans changed regularly throughout the year, not to worry. He was told it would be just like at the rest of the school that he already knew well. He walked out feeling satisfied based on the explanation and the positive interracial experiences of his elder children at the school.

“There was no racist intention in that thing,” Doctor says to me. “The teacher is a good person.”

People have been far too quick to jump on Schweizer as a racist town and the school as a racist school, he adds.

Doctor lives in Ipelegeng, the former blacks-only township, and has had white visitors play with his children. He offers to dig up pictures for me, and to put me in touch with other black parents who are happy with the school. He has positive stories to tell of good neighbourliness. He wants me and the country to be wary of “opportunists” who get ahead by stoking racial resentment.

Writing in the Sunday Independent, four days after Doctor made his case public on eNCA, journalist Don Makatile delivered absolute judgements on the Schweizer-Reneke case, such as this: “White residents see the world through a set of eyes different from the black perception.”

Makatile is not the only one who believes in “the black perception” even if that means discarding individual black people who contradict that orthodoxy. Makatile enjoys something approaching consensus among the ruling class, replete with its academics and name-brand pundits, that such a thing as “the black perception” exists.

I ask Doctor if he is afraid about this, afraid to go against the protesters’ unmovable conclusion that the class arrangement was racist and that authentic black people must all agree. He stops fidgeting with his hat and looks me dead on.

“I am afraid. Not of the people I live with. But I am afraid of those above. The MEC. And those others…” – he repeats the word with bite – “above.”

By his own account Doctor’s engagement with this teacher is limited. At least he has had some direct interaction with her and knows her name, Elsabe Olivier. Still, I must doubt his expertise as a character witness given the short period of engagement. So I track down a parent, black, whose child was in Olivier’s class all of 2018. She is afraid to meet so we put it off at first. Eventually, we rendezvous in secret, in the shade, to talk about her child’s year in Grade R under Ms Olivier. I will call the parent M.

“That is a good school and she, Elsabie [Olivier], is a good teacher. She supported my child. She even helped me. When I couldn’t understand [school missives] in Afrikaans she would translate them for me and give me tips for how to get along here. She showed me good aftercare where my child could learn more Afrikaans. She gave my child extra time in school. She was friendly to me after hours.” M looks up and checks herself after the rapid-fire commendation, then checks her child. “Miss Elsabie is good. I am happy with that school. I keep my child there.”

I ask sceptical questions and keep asking them. M has the patience to repeat herself – “the seating plan was changed many times in the year”, “I saw things myself when I made the drop-off”, “I was happy that my child was happy”, “everyone was friends in the class” – but after a time she sees her point is not getting through. So she takes out her phone. “Look.”

M has maybe a hundred photos that were WhatsApped to her from Ms Olivier’s class. I see children baking biscuits, eager and smiling. I see a kind of AfrikaBurn–inspired day-party, the children sprayed purple with glitter dancing in the dust. I see the dress-up day class portrait in which they all strike bravura attitudes and boast gap-toothed grins. If there is any salient segregation it is of boys sometimes being separated from girls but for the most part, the children are mixed cheerily along all axes. Then I see M’s child on a raised stool surrounded by classmates looking up, hands high, with glee. M’s child at the centre of it all. Shrieks of delight almost ripple from the picture.

“That was [his/her] birthday.” There is a sudden choke in M’s voice and a shimmer in her eye. She has pride and warmth sharing this moment but I think on some level she is upset with me, too. Upset that I might not see the individual in front of me being celebrated by the class birthday under Olivier’s arrangement. Upset that by speaking to me, one six-year–old child might become another pawn in a game infinitely far from innocence and grace. For a moment, I think: “What the hell am I doing here?”Then again, I consider, maybe M is upset that her child could not go to school today because of the protests. Maybe M is upset that her child has been near danger of late. Maybe M is upset that someone, Elsabe Olivier to be exact, who cared for her child and gave supererogatory warmth for a year, is being vilified across the country in absentia.

“Is it the right thing to show these pictures to me, to others?” I ask. M shakes her head again and smiles, clapping her decolletage under a mother-knows-best easy smile.

“It is the right thing. This is the truth. My child had a good time, was well cared for. The truth is the right thing.” I don’t think to ask M where exactly that fits in with “the” essentialist “black perception”?

One reason this question is hard to answer is that hit pieces such as Matikane’s against Olivier make no mention of Olivier by name, instead of taking it for granted that whoever “separated” or “segregated” the class is guilty of racism.

Ntwaagae Seleka’s hit piece also cites parental complaints but likewise fails to mention Olivier by name or detail of the character. Seleka is, if anything, an even more powerful writer than Matikane, describing “that picture” like so: “A picture depicted them showing black pupils sitting far away behind the door from white pupils…(sic).” Except that there are no children “behind” the door; you can tell by looking at the picture right next to the text. Seleka’s prose is so potent that it defies any ocular contradiction, even adjacent contradiction, and two parents in Schweizer tell me they knew “that teacher”, whoever she was, “must be racist because the black children were put outside the door”.

Naledi Shange’s hit in Timeslive reports on an anonymous parent accusing Olivier and others of effectively faking the later rainbow photos on the day in question “following complaints” to create a false impression of progressiveness. This parent does not seem to have mentioned Olivier by name either. Nor does this parent seem to have thought to ask parents of Olivier’s previous students what her general modus operandi is. This anonymous parent’s claim is contradicted by Doctor, by Barkhuizen’s sworn affidavit, and by phone timestamps. Still, I find parents in Schweizer-Reneke who believe it, who say: “I haven’t seen those other pictures where the children are together, but why should I? They are fake. They are fabricating a thing to look good.”

Some of the parents being cited in hit pieces might be just as informed as those who told me that Barkhuizen was a “hero” for deliberately stabbing Olivier in the back. In other words, uninformed but highly impassioned. That would be one explanation for Olivier’s name not coming up: those who accuse her of running a racist classroom do not know who she is.

Alternatively, and bearing in mind that each report is distinct, some anonymous parents might have provided Olivier’s name and character portrait specifically, in which case the journalists are at fault for naming and shaming but then forgetting to actually do the naming bit.

Olivier’s representatives tell me they have been given to expect that she and the headmaster will be fired as soon as the paperwork is in order. The anger is still there – in fact, on the national scale, it is rising. The hammer must fall. Only this time it will be procedural.

The most difficult thing at this stage will be to find anyone whose child was actually in Olivier’s class who is willing to testify against her.

I spoke to Aubuti Modise, one of the parent-couple who complained to staff after seeing the photo, which included their child. Modise speaks to me with managerial confidence and assures me that he supervises black and white and coloured people and they all know him to be fair. He does not do WhatsApp because he considers it a potential distraction. So he received “that photo” featuring his own child from his wife, by MMS. They were both worried and made complaints to the school. He denies vehemently that he or his wife leaked the pics to social media. He advocates addressing concerns at the relevant level, that of the school, which he did and he is now satisfied, eager to move up and on.

I tell him that it might be out of his hands, that Olivier is expected to be fired.

I think the line has gone dead, but then Modise speaks again: “It’s heartbreaking.” 

Gabriel Crouse is an Associate at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes political and economic freedom.