A teacher in South Africa has been suspended and allegations of racism are being investigated in a small town in the country’s North West province after a photograph showing black and white children sitting at separate desks went viral.
Twenty-five years after the dawn of democracy in South Africa, the country is still grappling with the specter of apartheid — a policy that separated citizens based on the color of their skin and prevented the black majority from accessing the same quality of services, including education, as the white minority.
Public schools reopened for the new academic year on Wednesday and a teacher at the Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke School took the picture and shared it with parents in a WhatsApp group, reportedly to show that the children were settling in on their first day of school. The photo in question shows four black children sitting separately from their white classmates.
The controversial picture went viral on social media, prompting the North West Provincial Education Department to launch an investigation. Sello Lehari, the political head of the provincial department, suspended the teacher on Thursday. According to the school, the black students were separated because they could not understand Afrikaans, a language spoken by about 6 million South Africans, including the white minority known as Afrikaners.
“We did not accept that explanation,” Lehari said. “The teacher is suspended with immediate effect.”
“We are also shocked to learn about this particular barbaric incident,” Aaron Motswana, a local politician from the ruling African National Congress Party, told the South African Broadcasting Corporation. “It was unwarranted and we strongly want to condemn it. On behalf of the ANC and the municipality that we lead, 24 years into democracy, we don’t expect such incidents, to continuously happen.”
He added, “There’s a history of this particular area, especially where Schweizer-Reneke Hoërskool is affected.”
The opposition political party, the Democratic Alliance, has welcomed the suspension of the teacher.
DA provincial leader, Joe McGluwa, told ABC News, “The DA strongly opposes segregation of young children on any grounds. As a country, we need to recommit to Nelson Mandela’s ideals of reconciliation and the rejection of racism.”
The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) is also investigating the allegations of racism, saying that there will be serious repercussions if children have been discriminated against. SAHRC Commissioner André Gaum told ABC News there’s still far too many cases of discrimination in the country.
“It’s also a broader societal issue and a great problem that we still have so many instances of unfair discrimination that is taking place, which is of great concern to the commission,” he said.
Gaum said if it is found that the incident was indeed of a racist nature, the SAHRC might recommend sensitivity training for other teachers.
The photo was “a reflection of a single moment in a classroom” and not an indication of school policy, the school said in a statement that was provided to local media.
The statement explained that the photo reflected an isolated moment and the children do in fact interact and are integrated. Other photos have since emerged showing an integrated classroom; however, it is not clear if those photos were taken on the same day or only after the outrage began on Wednesday.
ABC News’ requests for comment from school officials were not returned.