Panyaza Lesufi, bully

John Kane-Berman on the intolerant man in change of Gauteng's education

The biggest bully is the intolerant man in charge 

Earlier this month the Gauteng department of education warned that bullying at schools would be harshly dealt with as the department had a policy of "zero tolerance" towards it.

Yet one of the biggest bullies on the South African educational scene is the political head of the department, Panyaza Lesufi, member of the executive council (MEC) for education in Gauteng. He also appears to have a policy of "zero tolerance" towards Afrikaans schools, including Afrikaans schools most of whose pupils are coloured rather than white. 

In June 2015. Mr Lesufi bullied a Curro school near Pretoria into getting rid of its principal by threatening to withdraw its licence because of alleged racial segregation in school buses. In June the following year he launched a campaign of intimidation against a nursery school in Centurion, unjustifiably accusing it of racism without bothering to ascertain the relevant facts. In August last year his target was St John's College in Johannesburg, which he bullied into getting rid of a teacher who had already been dealt with by the school's disciplinary processes.

Among his latest targets is the Overvaal High School in Vereeniging, which he tried to bully into admitting 55 grade 8 pupils who wanted to study in English even though the school uses Afrikaans as its medium of instruction and was already full, with a number of black children among its pupils.

Overruled by Bill Prinsloo in the Gauteng division of the High Court in an application brought by the school's governing body, Mr Lesufi says he will appeal all the way to the Constitutional Court. This despite the fact that Judge Prinsloo issued a punitive costs order against his department. The judge said that state litigants had the "luxury to litigate at will at the expense of the taxpayer", while school governing bodies had to do so sparingly as they needed to use their funds for the children and not for litigation if they could help it.

So determined were Mr Lesufi and his department to force Overvaal to admit the 55 applicants that they bullied two English-medium high schools in the area into claiming that they too were full when they had earlier produced statistics showing that they had more than enough space to accommodate the 55 children and were happy to do so. The principals of these schools, General Smuts and Phoenix, were threatened with dismissal and loss of their pension rights unless they recanted.

Even though the Constitution upholds language rights, as does his own department's policy, Mr Lesufi wrote after the judgement that "language policies" were "malignant", and the "very essence of racism".

The court found that the department had made no attempt to verify Overvaal's capacity claims, and that it had tried to "force [the school] in an arbitrary fashion on very short notice to convert to a double medium institution when it is not practically possible to do so." One of the senior officials of the department had disclosed her "obvious bias" in objecting to Afrikaans as "a language whose legacy is sorrow and tears to the majority".

In its attempts to force Overvaal to admit the 55 pupils, the Gauteng department is using them as a battering ram in its crusade against what the court described as "an embattled minority group and their language".

Mr Lesufi appears to have one rule for Afrikaans-medium schools and another for English-medium schools. While excoriating Overvaal for not admitting children who wanted to go there when it was full, he said that if parents wanted their children to go to Jeppe High School for Boys and nowhere else, "If Jeppe Boys is full, there is nothing we can do."

There is great, and sad, irony in all this. Although there are a handful of shining exceptions, most of the township schools run by the Gauteng department perform so poorly that parents want to put their kids into former model C schools. Even though Mr Lesufi clearly resents Afrikaners, many black parents are glad to put their children into schools run by Afrikaners. 

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.