Maverick Citizen

EDUCATION

Pietermaritzburg’s Merchiston Preparatory School fights education department ‘capture’

Pietermaritzburg’s Merchiston Preparatory School fights education department ‘capture’
Department of Basic Education Director-General Matanzima Mweli. (Photo: Gallo Images / Frennie Shivambu)

An association of school governing bodies has asked the national Department of Basic Education to intervene in the Merchiston Preparatory School fiasco but the director-general’s office referred them back to the provincial education department.

Details have emerged about how the office of Department of Basic Education (DBE) director-general Matanzima Mweli allegedly ducked intervening in the saga playing out at Merchiston Preparatory School in Pietermaritzburg, which includes allegations of sexual harassment.

Concerned parents at the school, with the support of other schools in the area, gathered to hand over a petition to KwaZulu-Natal education authorities on Monday, 19 February 2024, demanding that authorities act lawfully and resolve issues at the school. 

merchiston prep ngcobo

KwaZulu-Natal education department HoD Nkosinathi Ngcobo. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)

This comes after the provincial department’s head of education (HoD) Nkosinathi Ngcobo withdrew the powers of Merchiston’s school governing body (SGB) on 7 February after the SGB requested an update on the disciplinary hearing against headmaster Llewellyn Bragin.

The school has been embroiled in controversy involving allegations of sexual misconduct against Bragin since last year. Bragin has not reported for work since he was suspended by the provincial education department in September 2023. He has denied the allegations against him.

The department had also suspended the school’s deputy principal Eric White and senior bookkeeper Reshmie Sewram amid allegations against Bragin. The SGB says White and Sewram have not been formally charged.

Missing correspondence

Merchiston’s SGB is one of the 173 members of the Governing Body Foundation (GBF) in KwaZulu-Natal, an association of SGBs in the province.

GBF provincial executive officer Dr Erna de Lange told Daily Maverick on 16 February that she interacted with national DBE DG Mweli’s office about issues faced by Merchiston, to no avail.

De Lange said she had communicated with Mweli’s office four times since 9 February.

DBE spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga said he has not been able to locate the correspondence.

“In the absence of such a letter, it would be impossible to have acted on it,” Mhlanga said.

He said DBE would await a report from the province before making its position known on the matter.

No response

De Lange said the GBF works closely with member schools and encourages good governance and management “as we believe school is about children and the best interest of children must be served at all times”.

The SGB’s role, De Lange said, is to assist the school management team in creating an environment conducive to good education – meaning teaching and learning must not be at risk.

“The SGB of Merchiston expressed their concern about events and lack of professional behaviour at the school and we advised the school that they have no jurisdiction where the employees of the department are concerned,” De Lange said.

She said Ngcobo, from the provincial department, should investigate allegations against school staff members and proceed with disciplinary action.

“There have been numerous attempts from the SGB to interact with the department,” she said.

Bragin, she said, was suspended, “but to the amazement of the school”, White and Sewram followed.

“To this day, [White and Sewram] have not received the reasons for their suspensions and no disciplinary hearings have taken place. Merchiston was left without a principal, a deputy principal and a senior finance officer.”

De Lange said several appeals have fallen on deaf ears and there was no reply from the KwaZulu-Natal Education MEC Mbali Frazer to requests for help.

“I contacted Mr Mweli’s office [DBE] and had a prompt response. Due to the separation of power, there was nothing they could do to assist the school. I expressed my concerns about accountability as Merchiston seems to have no option but to endeavour, yet again, to get a response from the MEC.”

De Lange said the SGB did not hear from the MEC but they received notice from Ngcobo that their powers had been withdrawn with immediate effect and a “sufficient” body was appointed to manage the school.

“To say the parent body of Merchiston was astounded is putting it mildly,” she said.

‘Disappointed’

De Lange said they have always had an amicable working relationship with the KwaZulu-Natal education department. However, she said they find the lack of response “most disappointing”.

KwaZulu-Natal education department spokesperson Muzi Mahlambi said Ngcobo would not simply suspending the SGB without following proper procedures.

“The submission was brought to the HoD after the investigation was conducted on the SGB,” Mahlambi said.

He said Ngcobo would have been guided by the processes and procedures in dealing with such a case.

“This is not the first SGB that the HoD has suspended,” he said.

Concerning the various suspensions and updates on disciplinary hearings, Mahlambi declined to comment, saying they “cannot discuss such issues publicly because there are litigations”.

‘No probe’

The SGB said they have not received confirmation from Ngcobo of being investigated for misconduct.

“The SGB has received no letter from the HoD appointing investigators to conduct an investigation at the school. No investigators have been to the school to conduct an investigation into the affairs of the SGB,” the SGB said.

The SGB said they would not entertain any investigation unless it was sanctioned by a duly authorised official of the department.

The SGB also denied knowledge of pending litigation.

“There is no active pending litigation between the SGB and the Dept of Education concerning Mr Bragin.”

‘Powers intact’

The SGB said it had lodged an appeal against the decision to withdraw its powers.

“The SGB’s appeal to the MEC has suspended the HoD’s decisions, so the SGB is still in place. The ‘sufficient persons’ identified/nominated by the department have not attempted to take over the functions of the SGB, yet.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: KZN schools send hungry pupils home as National School Nutrition Programme fails to deliver

The SGB said they were convinced that the decision to appoint “a new SGB” had to do with their insistence that the department finalised the disciplinary process against Bragin.  

“In this regard, it is important to look at the letter sent by the SGB’s attorneys on 30 January 2024 in which it was confirmed that a number of reputable sources informed the SGB that Mr Bragin would return to Merchiston on 1 February 2024.

“In response to this letter and on 31 January 2024, the HoD signed the two separate notices withdrawing the SGB’s allocated functions and appointing sufficient persons to take over the allocated functions.”

The SGB said further letters that they had addressed to Ngcobo through their attorneys on 6 February 2024 and 7 February 2024 set out what the SGB believed to be the motive behind its removal.

“No response was received to any of the letters from the HoD,” the SGB said.

In response to the alleged appeal issued by the SGB, provincial education spokesperson Mahlambi said: “You can’t have the so-called governors of the school behaving like this. This is being erratic and emotionally misguided.” DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • MrBeetar is turning in his grave!

    After his years to put the school on the map.. in just a year this clown has made us the talk of the town!

    Merchiston, we should consider going fully private!

    Thank you to all the teachers who remained and are hold the fort

    And we request our brilliant teachers who had to leave to please forgive us for not being able to stand up for you!

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Yip, another fine school bites the dust! Viva, ANC, Viva!

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Sadly expecting the Minister of Anything in this government is a total waste of time! The ANC are not even capable of organising a pissup in a brewery!

  • Paul Harvey says:

    This is a simple case of a toxic and narcissistic headmaster who should never have been appointed or, at the very least, tossed out on his ear last year. The entire matter has been unnecessarily turned into a devastating mess, damaging a highly reputable school (132 years old), by a grossly incompetent (captured?) ANC government. If people don’t realise that this government is destroying the last vestiges of what is good in this country, then they are truly blind.

  • Bob Dubery says:

    I don’t understand the comments here. Bragin is accused of abusive behaviour. We don’t have details of the charges. Either the accusations are an over reaction, or he did it. Either way it’s not the fault of Government or the current governing party.

    OK… so there’s no word of formal charges yet. These things are often difficult because people are reluctant to go on the record, and you have to be careful and sensitive when getting testimony from minors.

  • Bradley Welcome says:

    “The submission was brought to the HoD after the investigation was conducted on the SGB”
    But no reports of an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct? Priorities, priorities

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