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Overvaal: Where Is The Outrage Over Panyaza Lesufi?

The High Court in Pretoria found the Gauteng department of education acted illegally and tried to bully schools. Surely this is unacceptable?

17/01/2018 12:36 SAST | Updated 21/01/2018 08:05 SAST

Pontsho Mabena

The events at Hoërskool Overvaal -- an Afrikaans-medium high school in the ironically named town of Vereeniging (unification) -- brought out the worst in South Africans.

There were anarchic and violent EFF members with posters declaring "war on Afrikaans", an Afrikaans parent with what looked like military regalia (including a Rambo-type knife) standing guard, a charging AfriForum, politically intolerant speeches, police Nyalas trying to calm frayed nerves, and the ANC's biker brigade revving their machines outside the school's gates.

On the one side, confused and scared (white) schoolchildren looked on from behind locked gates and fences while, on the other side, excluded and uncertain (black) children stood beside the road with their protesting parents.

Pontsho Mabena
An unidentified person outside the contested Hoërskool Overvaal in Vereeniging on Wednesday, wearing what looks like military regalia.

It should never, ever have come to this: a school and its children seemingly being used to fight a political and ideological battle by Gauteng MEC for education, Panyaza Lesufi.

Because really, that's the only conclusion one can draw from the judgment by the High Court in Pretoria that set aside the decision by the Gauteng department of education to force Overvaal to enrol 55 English-speaking pupils in the school.

According to the court, Overvaal was full and two English-medium schools in the area had enough capacity to welcome the children. Lesufi and the department, however, tried to bully and intimidate to get their way. For purely political reasons.

No right-thinking South African could ever oppose an underutilised school being filled with children who have no other options, even if that impacts on the language policy of that school. Our history is one of inequality and deprivation, still seen and felt every day. Black children have for centuries been excluded from receiving a high-quality education, and South Africans must insist on their government making it its biggest priority.

By the same token, former Model-C schools must ensure that they reach out to struggling schools, and they need to be accommodating of children from outside their traditional feeder areas. It is the only way we all will survive.

But where is the outrage around Lesufi and his department's gerrymandering of numbers at Overvaal and the two English schools in the vicinity, General Smuts High School and Phoenix High School?

The Constitution guarantees the right to education, and it guarantees the right to mother-tongue education "where that education is reasonably practicable". That is a fine balance to hold, and one which parents and officials, children and interest groups have to navigate every year and with every intake in schools. And it is complicated even more so by our violent and racist history.

But where is the outrage around Lesufi and his department's gerrymandering of numbers at Overvaal and the two English schools in the vicinity, General Smuts High School and Phoenix High School, respectively 9.9km and 7.8km from the Afrikaans school? It is quite extraordinary that Lesufi has been let off the hook -- after the court judgment (which he is appealing) found the department intimidated school principals and manipulated procedure to get its way. It is an appalling abuse of power.

According to EWN's Barry Bateman, Prinsloo found that both General Smuts and Phoenix have capacity to accommodate the 55 English-speaking children, and that Overvaal had reached its capacity.

But the department never exercised its right to investigate numbers at the school. Instead -- and this is damning, but largely ignored -- it preferred to threaten the other schools' headmasters with dismissal if they didn't amend their affidavits to say that they, too, were full. That after both schools said that they did have capacity.

From Bateman's reporting:

So, if both English schools had capacity and the Afrikaans school is full, what was the problem? All of a sudden General Smuts and Phoenix made an about-turn:

But why would the schools' principals suddenly change their tune, saying they were wrong in the first affidavit and that they don't in actual fact have capacity? Did they make a mistake? No, says the judge:

When Lesufi and his department saw where it was headed, they intervened because the principals were "helping an Afrikaans school":

Lesufi gave a fuzzy answer to questions at a press conference on Tuesday on whether he will act against his head of department and district director, who were fingered by the court. "We will deal with it administratively," he said.

That's a fudge and a cop-out.

The MEC is playing fast and loose with the legitimate concerns and fears of many black parents who are struggling to get a quality education for their children. He's also victimising a school and a community whose rights are protected by the Constitution.

That has now led to the horrible events on Wednesday, where parents and children were confronted by the sight of the intolerant and the intolerable turning the first day of school into a traumatic and violent event. It is unacceptable.