Pretoria, South Africa — Jan 11, 2019, 3:12 PM ET

Teacher in South Africa suspended after controversial photo of students goes viral

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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."

PHOTO: This photo, widely shared on social media, shows four black children sitting separately from their white classmates and is part of an investigation launched by North West Provincial Education Department.WhatsApp
This photo, widely shared on social media, shows four black children sitting separately from their white classmates and is part of an investigation launched by North West Provincial Education Department.

“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.

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  • Thoughts n prayers

    Europeans should go back t8o Europe. They've done enough damage on that continent.

  • Alwyn Schoeman

    The image data of the other photos have shown that they were taken minutes apart.
    This photo was cherry-picked for political reasons.
    The teacher is going to a real court to claim back her life. What is not told in this article is how she also had to flee her home, how parents had to keep their kids home because of political mobs outside the school.
    With the election run-up there has been multiple cases of alleged racism of white on black racism and they have all been debunked. Of course the media only reports the sensational alleged crime.
    These attacks are on purpose since anti-white rhetoric is being used to distract from the corruption and delivery failures of the ruling party. They are playing with fire.

    What is notable is how quickly this case went from a photo to judgement and suspension. This from the same organisations that have been lax and unwilling to respond to public genocide threats by politicians on other races.

    Having gone to school in South Africa I can think of multiple reasons for the progression in the photos from isolation to integration, especially on a first day of school in first grade class, none of them racist.

    In the long run these kids and society will benefit from them being in a predominantly white school. They will receive better education and will be able to make informed decisions based on experience rather than political rhetoric. They will not easily vote ANC, the ANC knows it and it is one of the reasons why the education system as it exists today is not there to empower students but to keep the masses poor and uneducated.

  • dan

    25 years is nothing. It's been over 150 in the United States and Steve King still exists.

  • Robin

    Good grief. It's one step forward, two steps back.

  • Prophet With Honor

    There is a possibility that this was early on the first day and they were grouped so they could socialize in comfortable company.
    It could also be something more nefarious.
    I can't make the call.

  • Robert Holt

    I really don't see the need to blot out the faces of at least 16 kids. A bit of overkill to me.

  • Dicazi

    How does separating the kids in the same classroom help in learning the language?

  • SlowNewsDay

    It's weird and sad to see such a thing in 2019.