On the 9th of January a picture went viral on social media of black and white school children seated at separate tables at a school in South Africa. This depiction was decried as an act of racism, and segregation, and judging by the political and media frenzy that followed, a near national crisis.
The story also quickly travelled around the world reinforcing once again the international stereotype of Afrikaners as deeply unreconstructed people, still clinging on to the practices of apartheid, despite the hand of reconciliation having been extended to them by black South Africans.
As always the story was far more complex than it first appeared. To make sense of it, it is helpful to break what happened into three separate but overlapping stories: of what happened the morning the picture was taken; how the issue broke onto social media and what happened the day thereafter; and how the English-language media reported on all of this.
The first story
The first story is about seating arrangements in a classroom, and it goes something as follows:
Wednesday morning, the 9th of January 2019, was the first full day of school for Grade R learners of Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke, an Afrikaans medium primary school in the town of the same name in South Africa’s North West province.
The Grade R intake was divided into two classes of about 22 pupils each. The teacher of the one class, Elsabé Olivier, was employed by the Department of Education; the other, Elana Barkhuizen, by the School Governing Body (SGB).
As in previous years, there were a small number of Setswana-speaking pupils in both classes. The school would later explain they were grouped together at the start of their first day, so that they would have friends to easily converse with and to allow their teachers, who could not speak Setswana, to communicate with them and explain what would be happening with the aid of a translator. For some reason, which remains unclear, these children were seated at a separate table, near the door, in Olivier’s class.
On the morning in question, parents had sent through a number of messages enquiring about their children. Barkhuizen hurriedly took photos of both classes and posted these to the class WhatApp group, at exactly 9 am. Her intention, she later explained, was to alleviate parents’ anxieties by showing them their children were peaceful and content.
In the photo of Barkhuizen’s class, pupils are seated together on a single table, with black children in the foreground smiling and giving her the thumbs up. We will call this Photo 1. The photograph of Olivier’s class was, however, taken from the opposite perspective. In this photo (Photo 2), it is young blonde children in the foreground, smiling and giving the thumbs up, with the black children in the corner, at a separate table in the background.
The racial optics of the picture are breathtakingly awful.
Although the WhatsApp message was meant to reassure parents, it had the opposite effect on the mother of one of the children in the corner. (We will refer to her as Mother A and her son as Child A for the rest of the article.) Mother A found the photograph deeply upsetting as it conveyed the impression that her child and others were being racially separated from their peers. She informed her husband, who then phoned Barkhuizen and complained irately.
Barkhuizen was not able to placate him – they allegedly had had an earlier run-in regarding discounted school fees – and she told him to phone the headmaster, which he did. The principal was apologetic and reassured the parents that the racial separation was not intentional, but that he would go to the class to investigate.
At 11:58 am, two more photos of Olivier’s class (Photos 3 and 4) were sent out to parents on the WhatsApp group. These showed that class seating arrangements had been changed, and the two tables were now completely racially mixed.
The mother of Child A told her son at the end of the day that she would be taking him out of the school, but, as she related soon after, “he got cross and said no. He said he had friends at the school and wants to stay”.
The four images posted to the Grade R parental WhatsApp group on the morning of the 9th January 2019:
The second story
The second story is of how the first story became the centre of a racial firestorm on social media, and what happened next. This begins not long after the first story began, with Mother A posting Photo 2 on her personal Facebook page. “That’s how it went viral,” she later told OpenNewsSA in an interview.
As best we can tell this crossed over into the public domain at 10:53 am on the 9th of January, when Lebogang Magagane, a young ANC activist and protégé of the influential North West ANC politician Kenny Morolong (both of whom are from Schweizer-Reneke) posted the story first to Facebook, and then to Twitter, tagging several prominent ANC politicians and activists in the process. The picture was framed as follows:
“Schweizer-Reneke Laerskool, racism displayed on 1st day of school. Whites are separated from Blacks, if you look closely, you will see 4 black kids sitting near the door, and White kids happily sitting properly in a class.”
A few points are significant here. Firstly, the faces of the children were not masked, and so their identities were completely exposed. Secondly, the school was named, thereby identifying the location of the children. Thirdly, this was framed as a case of “racism” and racial separation.
This Facebook posting would reach a wider and wider circle throughout the day, and was eventually shared close to 5 000 times. Magagane’s Twitter posting at 11:04 am, however, would only be retweeted some two hundred times. Instead, it was replicated twice by @amokwena, a user with fewer than 40 followers.
This user added the hashtag #BundleOfJoy to his first tweet, which was posted at 11:18 am. This would end up being retweeted 1,700 times. A short while later, the user posted another tweet with the hashtag #Grade1, which would be retweeted four hundred times. Both of these hashtags were being used on the day by proud parents across the country as they shared photographs of their children wearing pressed uniforms and happy smiles on their first day of school.
At around 12:30 pm, the @AdvBarryRoux account posted Photo 2, with an orange line around the black children (the identities of children still not masked), to his half-a-million followers, with the comment: “Meanwhile at Schweizer reneke laerskool.” This would be retweeted 5 000 times. A follow-up tweet some ten minutes later, using exactly the same framing of the incident that Magagane had, was retweeted 1 170 times.
It was at about this time that Barkhuizen and Olivier were called into the headmaster’s office and informed that Photo 2 had gone viral on social media.
At 12:47 pm, in a series of angry posts, the uncle of Child A also tweeted the image, tagging the department of basic education, the EFF, and various news outlets. “How is dis still happening maar?dis asshole teachers must be dealt wit throughly bloody racists”, he wrote. He made a further posting at 1:03 pm, this time with Photo 3, along with the comment: “Look how dis fucken white afrikaaners tries to make things look OK? after my brother called dem abt his son being racially abused?”
Photo 2, and Magagane’s particular framing of it, would now spread like wildfire on social media, jumping across from Facebook to Twitter and back again. Among the institutions and luminaries which saw nothing wrong with tweeting, or retweeting, a picture of a group of five-year-old children, their faces clearly visible, were DA Federal Youth Leader Luyolo Mphithi, the Democratic Alliance itself, Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi, and the EFF leader, Julius Malema.
That afternoon it was announced that North West education MEC Sello Lehari would be visiting the school the following morning. The DA also released a press statement, issued in Mphithi’s name, where the party strongly condemned the incident and found it “outrageous that a classroom in 2019 can be racially segregated”. It was “unconscionable” and a “shocking replication of apartheid policies”. The youth leader announced he would be visiting the school the following morning. The party helpfully published the school’s physical address along with a Google map.
A few years ago social media firestorms would ignite and burn themselves out online. This has now changed. At 8pm, Youth Communist League committee member, Pule Ramabodu, also posted a message on Facebook calling for all activists and the community at large in the area to “fill up Laerskool tomorrow at 08:30 to demonstrate against racism that is rearing its ugly head in that School. It’s being years now having to have our black parents dealing with this unbearable condition alone.” A similar call was issued by the EFF.
Although the school day started as normal by 8am, the first protesters had already assembled outside the main gate of the school. Protesters from the EFF, ANC, SACP, and YCL arrived – with multiple sources claiming that bakkie-loads of people pulled up as t-shirts were handed out. Although the main gate was closed and locked, a number of protesters in EFF and ANC t-shirts jumped over the fence just before 9 am, and proceeded to roam the school grounds. The police called in reinforcements and the bulk of the crowd was prevented, for the moment, from pushing their way through the main entrance.
At around 9.30 am, parents started arriving en masse to evacuate their children from the school, the message having gone out that the security situation was turning ugly, and that threats had been made to burn down the school. Because the main gate was blocked they had to break down a section of palisade fencing to evacuate the pupils. In a report run shortly afterwards, Netwerk24 reported that “chaos” had erupted at the school and panicked parents had arrived to rescue their children. Journalist Christiaan du Plessis’ photographs caught the moment well – with parents shown fetching, assisting and consoling young children (of all colours).
“You must understand this is a primary school, so it’s very young kids,” the chairperson of the school governing body (SGB), Jozeph du Plessis would later have to explain to Govan Whittles of eNCA. “So they are quite traumatised when people run and shout and use bad language and throw stones and bang against doors and windows. And one can understand the reaction of the parents. They just want to keep their kids safe, so they came to fetch their kids and take them home”.
MEC Lehari arrived at the school just after 10 am, and proceeded to a meeting with the principal and SGB representatives. The main crowd upped their efforts to push their way through the main gate, assisted on the inside by protesters who had climbed over the fence.
Online footage shows the crowd’s efforts to force open the gate, while three (white) men try to stop them, as police officers stand passively by. A young woman from the EFF strikes one of the men, tugging at and hitting him while whoever is filming shouts, “Shoot him”. Another protester comes in with a purloined road sign in order to pry open the gate. Eventually the (white) men vacate the scene, the gate is lifted off its railings, with some assistance from the police, and the crowd is allowed to stream in. This is at around 10:30 am.
Video footage filmed and posted online by Pule Letshwiti, a journalist for eTV’s Open News, show EFF members singing and chanting as they make their way through the school buildings. They then try and force their way into the principal’s office, at about 10:40 am, but are prevented by the police from doing so. The mob had now taken almost complete occupation of and controlled large parts of the school. By this point the pupils and all but the most senior staff were out of harm’s way.
At 10:56 am, Barkhuizen was phoned by the headmaster and told that the decision had been taken to suspend her with immediate effect. A short time later, Lehari went into the school hall to address the protesters that had assembled there after being told that an announcement was going to be made soon. He was prevented from speaking for several minutes by the chants of the protesters who demanded to see the “racist” principal of the school.
Eventually the crowd calmed down enough for Lehari to convey his message. He told them the school had informed him the children had been separated on the basis of language, as they did not understand English and Afrikaans, but that he did not accept this explanation. He then announced the “decision of the department” on the matter. He told the crowd that the name of the teacher concerned was “Ellen (sic) Barkhuizen” (he repeated her name a number of times) and that she had been suspended with immediate effect.
This announcement was met with cheers and applause. Lehari then said that this was pending investigation and finalisation of the case. As the Labour Court would later confirm this decision was completely unlawful both because Barkhuizen had not been given a chance to present her version, and because she was not even employed by the department. It is however clear from the footage that Lehari’s announcement placated the mob, at a point where the situation could have quite easily escalated into outright violence.
Barkhuizen’s suspension was welcomed by DA North West leader, Joe McGluwa, in a statement that also named her. McGluwa also said his party regretted “the situation escalated to the extent that these young children had to be evacuated following the mobilisation by other political parties. Many innocent children will be left traumatised by today’s events and we call on the school to offer counselling to all children who were affected by this incident.”
Elsewhere across the country, Patricia de Lille, of the GOOD party, welcomed the suspension of Barkhuizen, opining that “Racism is not GOOD. Discrimination of any kind cannot be tolerated in our democracy. Good people stand up against racism.” De Lille did not say what GOOD people thought about mobs invading school grounds, terrifying small children, and enforcing summary justice.
In a later interview with Rapport, Barkhuizen explained how she and Olivier were with their Grade R classes that morning when the first protesters breached the school grounds by jumping over the fence. She was warned that there had been threats to burn down the school and that the protesters were specifically searching out her and her classroom.
Throughout this time, Olivier and Barkhuizen stayed in their classrooms as children were progressively shepherded to safety. Although herself terrified – she being the primary target of the mob’s fury – her priority was to reassure her children by staying with them, and making sure they felt safe. Only once all the children were out of danger could Olivier and Barkhuizen themselves think of seeking sanctuary.
One of the last distraught and terrified children left in her charge, whom she hugged and consoled to reassure that all would be well, was the child of Mother A.
This then is the second story.
The third story
The third story is the way in which much of the English-language press mishandled the first story, and largely missed the second.
Just after 2 pm on the 9th of January the first news report on the controversy appeared on TimesLive. This was written by journalist Naledi Shange, and headlined Parents fume as black and white Grade R children are ‘separated’ in North West classroom.
The article briefly and cautiously described the paltry set of facts hitherto available, on the mother’s version, who was said to be “pissed off” and “hoping her five-year-old child was still too young to have noticed what was happening.” TimesLive chose however to publish before it had been able to get comment from the school.
The article instead gave great prominence – just under 35% of word count real estate – to Fallist activist Mcebo Dlamini’s Facebook thoughts on the issue. He was quoted inter alia as saying:
"What is most provoking about this image is not that black kids are ostracized from white kids, that is common in our supposedly post-apartheid Africa. Rather what becomes painful is that there are black people who still insist that racism has ended and who think that blacks and whites can have peaceful relations that do not have undertones of racism.”
In a press release the following day, SGB chairperson Jozeph du Plessis said the viral (single) photograph was a "reflection of a single moment in a classroom" and learners “from different backgrounds, including race, religion and language, are not merely accommodated but are fully integrated in all aspects of the school environment." As described above four different images of the situation in the Grade R classes had been actually been posted on the parental WhatsApp group on the morning of the 9th, three of which showed racially integrated classrooms.
Although the second story was covered in part by the English-media, the emphasis was placed not upon the mob’s invasion of the property but on the fact that a number of the parents who had arrived to evacuate these children had been wearing side-arms. A number of journalists conveyed, and clearly shared, the protesters deep indignation at having been met by such “gun-wielding”, “gun-toting”, “bullet-proof vest wearing” folk. Bringing weapons onto school property was an absolute no-no, was the general opinion, and a clear threat to the safety of children. It was an outrage that the police had not done anything about this.
EFF Regional secretary in the Dr Ruth Mompati District, Justice Dabampe, was also invited onto Xolani Gwala’s Radio 702 show to give his view on the events of the day. Dabampe said that merely by going to the school one could “feel” that it was “a very racist environment” because “everything was written in Afrikaans”. “You go to the toilet, it’s Afrikaans. You go to the classroom, it’s Afrikaans,” he said. “So that alone shows you that the school, even the Department, has institutionalised racism in this Schweizer-Reneke school.” When asked whether the fighters were planning on suspending protests after the MEC had gotten involved, Dabampe couldn’t say. “For now, we are going to sit down and re-strategise,” he said. “[Because] racism, wherever it shows, wherever its ugly head shows itself, we must chop it. We must cut it.”
As for the first story there were two incompatible versions from the start. The first, which had taken hold on social media and was repeated as fact by many publications, was that this was a racist Afrikaner school where black children were separated on the basis of their colour. The second, that this was just a single photo of a “single moment” in the day which had created a grossly misleading impression of the school and its ethos. What complicated the issue, when it came to verifying which version was true, was that the complainant was Mother A who had posted Photo 2 on Facebook before she herself had had a chance to find out whether her fears of segregation were real or imagined.
If it was the former however then clearly other parents of black children would have similar stories to tell. It seemed that the Sunday Times had found one in Edwin Koloi, the parent of Karline, a seven-year old pupil at the school. It was early Friday morning, and Graeme Hosken wrote, the anger was etched on Koloi’s face. And why was Koloi so furious? The other (white) parents had received an SMS the previous evening telling them school was closed which he had not. This he put down to discrimination. Edwin and Karline had turned up only to find the gates barred. But then he told Hosken, “Karline loves this school and all she wants to do is play with her friends. She is not interested in this nonsense of racism. She just wants to learn."
This Sunday Times article, while containing an account of two pubs just outside the town in which one patron had used the k-word, contained a single reference to the second story, the actual reason why the school had been closed: “Protesters stormed the school grounds” it stated, “and gun-wielding parents descended on the school to rescue their children.” In an editorial that newspaper denounced the seating arrangements of Grade R, but did not think that the mob’s invasion of the school and the terrorisation of young children was worthy of comment or condemnation.
In another interview, sometime later, eNCA was able to interview the father of one of the black children pictured in Photo 2. At the time, Lehari had just met with parents, staff, and the SGB in a follow up visit. The eNCA reporter asked the father what the department’s plans were. The MEC had allegedly promised to send social workers and psychologists to “calm down the kids”, he said, but he believed the department had “gone too far with this matter”. The reporter asked, “So what you’re saying is that you understand exactly what the teacher was doing [and] this matter has been blown out of proportion by the MEC? Is that what you’re saying?” “This is my point exactly,” the father said. He added that he had enrolled his younger son because of the excellent education children received there, and he knew this because he had an older child at the school. “My son was doing very well here,” he said. “The teachers were so nice with my son here”.
The wall of silence was finally broken, it seemed, in an article by News24 headlined More tension as parents and security guards clash outside Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke. The journalist described the “pandemonium” on Monday afternoon, the 14th of January, after “security guards and parents clashed”. A man, Thami Moremi, had arrived to collect his niece, who was in Grade R, but the security guards the school had employed had turned him away. Moremi, was then reportedly joined by “other parents” in “hurling insults at the guards and accusing them of being racists”. The journalist quoted Moremi at length, and his utterances were also filmed and widely disseminated in the English-language press:
"I am coming back with more people in a minibus taxi. You are racists. I am bringing more people here. I will teach you a lesson. I have a child here. You come with sh*t.”
"We don't want to see you here again. You are full of apartheid. We want the department to employ a black principal, we are tired of white people."
"This school is full racists. I am asking the minister and MEC for education to shut down this school until all racists are gone. White people are not asked to explain themselves when they arrive at the school to fetch their children.”
Here at last was a clear cut case of both an angry ‘parent’ and gross racial discrimination at the school. Netwerk24 went one step further in its reporting and actually interviewed the mother of the child involved. She was distraught. It turned out that Moremi was an EFF member and he had falsely claimed her daughter as his own child when she went to pick her up, in an effort to gain access to the school property. Near to tears, she told the publication: “My child cries when she can’t come to school, she is very happy here. The school is not racist, black and white children are not kept apart from each other.”
There was a melancholy postscript to all this.
On the 17th of January 2019 the uncle of Child A shared a number of pictures that had been posted by a proud mother exactly one year before. These showed black and white children playing innocently and happily together in some school playground, with not a care in the world. “Cn we allow kids to be kids en nt instill racism to dem plz”, the uncle commented, “Look at dis pics is de no harmony, joy, laughter nd peace among dem? #SharePlz”
The playground was the playground of Laerschool Schweizer-Reneke. These children were Grade R pupils from the previous year. Their teacher had been Elana Barkhuizen.
This then was the third story.
To sum up then the first story was about our past, as the photo that went viral resonated because it triggered memories of the country’s divided history.
The second story is about where we are now. It reveals, inter alia, how quickly a story can spread on social media; a particular narrative can be set and accepted before any basic investigation and verification has been done; how these controversies are increasingly spilling over from social media into direct action by radical elements; and how the rights of the accused to a fair hearing and a due process are being short-circuited.
It highlighted too the recklessness with which politicians and their political activists start behaving when they think they are hunting down “white racism”. In this case young children had their privacy grossly invaded through the mass circulation of their images online; and their sense of safety (as well as that of their teachers) violated by the mob’s invasion of their school.
This is where the third story is so important. Unless politicians are held to account by the media for the kind of conduct described here – which they are not – these disturbing trends are only going to escalate.