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Friday, January 21, 2022

Panyaza Lesufi: We must never get tired of fighting racism

Thabo Mohlala

Gauteng education MEC, Panyaza Lesufi, and his senior officials were grilled yesterday during the third day of the hearing into racism in Eldorado Park and the surrounding communities. This follows disruptions of schooling at Klipspruit West Secondary School  widely believed to be fuelled by racism.

Lesufi had to answer to submissions made by residents during the two-day hearings held early this week in Eldorado Park. Most residents accused Lesufi’s department of racism for appointing a principal who they argue was unqualified. They also accused the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE) of failing to dismiss Black teachers who allegedly racially abused the coloured learners.

Lesufi was asked to explain the procedure followed to appoint the principal. He told the hearing that the process to fill vacant posts in all schools is handled by the school governing bodies (SGBs), who appoint a panel to select, interview and recommend the person they consider suitable for the position. Once they were satisfied, the SGBs would send the information to the district office and then finally forward to the Head of Department (HoD) for a final decision, Lesufi outlined. He said the SGB at KWSS followed all the necessary steps required to make an appointment.

Patriots for Equality, a community organisation, charged that the appointment of the principal was irregular because she ranked third on the list of the recommended candidates. They wanted a coloured teacher appointed because they felt they were being marginalised in their own space. Lesufi said race had never been a criterion when they appointed teachers and what they always looked for commitment and competency.

In defence of the decision to appoint the principal ranked third on the list, the GDE’s HoD, Edward Mosuwe, said they did not look only at the points scored to make an appointment.

“Points are just but some of the variables that we consider when we make a decision regarding the appointment,” said Mosuwe. He told the commission that HoDs have the power to appoint a person even if he or she scored low points. “But this can only be done provided there are valid reasons for the decision,” he added.

The community also alleged that Lesufi’s department treated members of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) with kid gloves. Four Sadtu members are facing disciplinary action and the community has called on the department to remove them from the school.

“You reacted swiftly to incidences of racism and other disturbances elsewhere, why are you dragging your feet on this matter,” one commissioner put to Lesufi.

The MEC refuted the claim that his department sided with Sadtu, saying the district office is busy with disciplinary measures against teachers. He said legally their hands were tied as they could not take action against the teachers without following the normal disciplinary process.

“The principle of innocent until proven guilty applies in this instance,” Lesufi said.

But he said the situation in Eldorado Park was complicated as they had to address concerns from the community and Sadtu members.

“We were dealing with an impasse and we had to choose a middle ground to ensure we safeguard the interests of the learners. Had we expelled the four teachers we risked collapsing the entire education system in the whole of Soweto,” said Lesufi.

He also dismissed the accusation that his department is unwilling to eradicate schools built with asbestos materials. Lesufi said there are 29 schools in the province built of asbestos and their target is to eradicate them by 2021. “We prioritise these schools because asbestos poses very serious health hazards. At the moment the focus is on no-fees schools,” said Lesufi.

He said the complaint that children from Soweto are crowding out the local learners is “selfish”. “I have instructed my HoD to ensure that no child is denied schooling.

“You can’t deny children an opportunity to learn just because they come from a different residential area. Whose child should be turned away?” asked Lesufi. He said even if there was over-crowding, every child should be allowed to be at school, adding “they are better off within the school than outside”.

Klipspruit West Secondary School is currently run by officials seconded by the district office and the situation has calmed down markedly. The department has since taken grade 12 learners to a special matric camp to help them prepare for the final examinations. Grade 9, 10, and 11 learners also received catch up lessons. 

Sadtu will make submissions at the hearings on Friday.

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