A photo that an elementary school teacher in South Africa took of her classroom to soothe parents nervous about their children’s first day of school instead generated shock and outrage after it showed four black children sitting at a small table in a corner, separate from the white children seated at a larger table.
The teacher at Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke in South Africa’s North West province, shared the picture on the school’s WhatsApp group, intended as an update for parents.
However at least one of the children’s mothers, who does not wish to be identified, was furious with the connotations.
“All I saw was messages from the white parents saying ‘dankie, dankie [‘thank you, thank you’] but no one was saying anything about the separation of the learners,” she told the South African Times.
The chairman of the school’s governing body, Jozeph du Plessis, said the teacher thought she was helping the students feel at ease on their first day of school, by seating them with children from their own racial group.
“We saw the photo and we were also angered by what we saw,” he said. “The kids were quite unsettled – you must realize they were five years old on their first day at school – and she grouped them in a way she thought would settle them quickly and comfort them.
“There was no intent of racism or segregation from the teacher’s side. We are investigating – perhaps it could be a language issue, perhaps those kids are not speaking Afrikaans, but I can’t speculate.”
The controversy prompted a protest outside the school on Thursday, and some white parents retrieved their children from class.
Sello Lehari, the provincial Education Minister, said after stopping by the school: “From the information I got from the meeting, it seems that there are a lot of cases here of racism.
“I will send a team to do an investigation into all schools… to deal with issues of racism in totality,” Lehari said.
Student activist Mcebo Dlamini said on social media the most “provocative” thing about the whole situation “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.”
The teacher has subsequently been suspended, according to South Africa’s News24.