Save Our Schools

Dr. James Myburgh, editor of Politicsweb writes a review and comments on the dismissal of a teacher for making an allegedly racist remark, the procedural nightmare that resulted in her dismissal and refusal of her appeal. Once the final process, arbitration, had been completed she was completely exonerated - but not without huge trauma.

On 23rd August 2019 Anneke Smit was teaching Grade 11 biology class at a Hoërskool in Pretoria North. She had long had problems with certain pupils in her class - to the extent that the headmaster had had to send in other staff members in to restore order - and they were once again being disruptive. Some pupils were talking and another, Thandi*, was walking around the class and had laughed off Ms Smit's instructions to return to her seat.

Seeing the principal walk by Ms Smit had asked whether someone could not go and fetch him, commenting that she needed a polisiemannejtie (the Afrikaans diminutive for policeman) in class to keep order. She was immediately accused by Thandi of calling her a “police monkey”. Desiree, a pupil sitting in the front of the class, and then Ms Smit herself, had clarified that she had said “polisiemannejtie” not “police monkey”.

On 4th September 2019 a further incident occurred. Another of the difficult pupils, Abongile, had arrived late for the Life Sciences class. About ten minutes before the class ended, while Ms Smit was explaining some point important to the upcoming examinations, Abongile asked permission to go to the toilet. Ms Smit then asked whether this was “really necessary?” But after it was explained that Abongile’s period had started, she had allowed her to go.

A complaint was then laid with the Gauteng Department of Education against Ms Smit. On the 2nd October she received a letter from the acting District Director of Tshwane North accusing her of “improper, disgraceful or unacceptable” conduct for calling the one pupil a “police monkey” and refusing the other “permission to go to the toilet even though she told you that her menstruation periods started unexpectedly.”

A disciplinary hearing was then held on the 21st and 22nd October 2020 and on 3rd February 2021. In April 2021 Ms Smit was told by the head of the department that she had been found guilty on both charges and was dismissed from her position. Ms Smit had then appealed against the verdict and sentence to Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi, but he had dismissed her appeal in September 2021.

 

Earlier this year the matter ended up before an arbitration hearing of the Education Labour Relations Council, where Ms Smit was represented by the Solidarity trade union. Three pupils testified on behalf of the department, which was the respondent in the matter. The central fact in dispute was over whether Ms Smit had initially said “police monkey” or “polisiemannetjie.”

Three pupils were brought by the department to testify that they had heard Ms Smit call Thandi a “police monkey”, while Ms Smit and the pupil Desiree testified that she had said “polisiemannetjie” but had been misheard. Solidarity also brought two expert witnesses to the arbitration to testify inter aliathat the term “polisiemannetjie” was not derogatory and would not have been directed at Thandi in any event, while the phrase “police monkey” does not exist and had it been used would have been meaningless.

According to the arbitration award, in their submissions the department had made extensive use of case law to try and prove that Ms Smit should be “understood to have used hate speech underpinned by racial connotation and discriminatory import against a disruptive and ill-disciplined learner.” The department had also submitted that in such situations it was the “views of the recipient community which must prevail as opposed to the views of the utterer’s community.”

The arbitrator ruled that there was no basis for the charge over the toilet incident, and Ms Smit was under no obligation to grant instant permission to the pupil when asked. On the issue of the phrase used he ruled that Ms Smit had, on the balance of probabilities, said “polisiemannetjie” – and this utterance had been intended to “make an appeal for an intervention by someone in authority” as opposed to being directed at Thandi. On these substantive grounds, as well as certain procedural ones, he ordered that Ms Smit be reinstated with back pay equal to her ten months of lost earnings.

 

Although justice seems to have belatedly prevailed in this case - thanks to Solidarity and the common sense and decency of the arbitrator - it is emblematic of a racial contagion wreaking havoc in multiracial schools across South Africa.

Pupils, often with a history of disruption and/or dishonesty, have learnt that they can get at figures of authority (and other pupils) by making spurious allegations of “racism”. Instead of supporting teachers in such cases, unscrupulous adults in positions of power have indulged and encouraged this form of racial libel.

Panyaza Lesufi, a politician notorious for his boer-baiting, has long been one of the worst offenders in this regard. Despite the facts of this case being self-evident, and the central claim of the pupils being obviously absurd, his department pursued this witch hunt all the way to the ELRC. The effect of this sort of behaviour by the department is to undercut the authority of headmasters and teachers across the Gauteng school system.

The lives and careers of many committed teachers, principals and innocent pupils have been blighted and sometimes destroyed over the past few years in similar cases. It has also led to a breakdown of discipline and racial comity within schools and has brought many once leading schools, public and private, to the brink of dysfunctionality.

 

The question is who, other than Solidarity, is willing to step up to save these schools from these destructive forces?

* The names of the pupils have been changed.

 

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