Last year I watched a video of a teacher in Potchefstroom spanking a six-year-old child in a primary school. The same teacher also encouraged children to assault “moffies” (“faggots”). I was convinced this would be enough to get the teacher fired. But I was wrong. The teacher is still wreaking havoc with young lives. Here’s the twisted story of why nothing happened.
In 2014 two students from the North West University’s Potchefstroom campus witnessed and recorded similar incidents on an iPad. They also overheard this teacher impose her religious ideas on the children in her care on numerous occasions.
When a boy cried after she had hit him, he was rebuked. He’s not allowed to cry, he would only have a legitimate reason to cry if he had suffered “like Jesus Christ hanging on a cross with blood coming from his eyes,” she enlightened him.
The teacher asked children in her class if they knew what a “moffie” (a “faggot”) was. She explained that a “moffie” is a boy who likes boys. “And if you see a moffie, you should go in a group and hit him.”
The adults who witnessed the abuse and homophobia were shocked. As interpreters they had to spend several months in the Grade 1 classroom as part of a research project to establish whether translating lessons for six-year-old Afrikaans and Tswana kids who are taught in English would improve their academic performance.
The NWU students were not sure what to do about the abuse they had seen. One of them reported the teacher’s misconduct to the people in charge of the NWU’s Language Directorate who had initially instructed them to do the interpreting.
Here’s where things get murky.
The university was dependent on the goodwill of the township school to continue the research so it was not a good idea to make a fuss, was the message the student says she got from her superiors. That message was later reinforced when another employee of the Language Directorate said such behaviour was “cultural” and it was not appropriate to question teachers in coloured and black schools.
The university claims they left it to the chief interpreter to report the abuse to the headmaster of the school. But they acknowledge they knew that the headmaster is the same person who claims that parents at his school gave teachers “permission” to use corporal punishment.
There are two reasons to question the university’s version: Unanswered correspondence from the student who had raised the issue and a blatant lie by the NWU staff member directly responsible for facilitating the research.
On 22 July 2014 the student had sent an email to both the Interpreting Services Manager and the Head of Language Practice asking what she should do about the abuse: “I want to enquire yet again if there is anything that can be done about the teacher who is spanking the kids. I feel like an accomplice to child abuse and it is getting worse. I realise I’m breaking the law if I keep quiet about this.”
The person to whom this mail was sent, Anneliese Beukes, did not reply to the mail. When I phoned her on 11 February this year she denied any knowledge of abuse. “I know the interpreters said the teacher was strict, but they never mentioned anything about abuse,” she said. When I read this email to her and asked her why she was lying, she referred me to the other manager to whom the email was also addressed (Johan Blaauw, who had also failed to respond to the initial email) and abruptly ended the conversation.
In a letter responding to questions about the incident, the spokesperson of the NWU explained the management of the Language Directorate said they couldn’t possibly act on “hearsay”. This is a nonsensical explanation because the interpreters were actually primary witnesses to the abuse (so it was by no means “hearsay”) and on at least one iPad they had proof of what went on in the classroom.
The one student had shown the footage to several of her friends who advised her to report it. A legal expert at the NWU told her that in a research context there normally are very strict ethical guidelines for instances where researchers observe abuse. But this needed to be handled by the chief researcher (Prof. Marlene Verhoef, the director of the Language Directorate) and not by a student who was only responsible for the fieldwork.
The student insists she had told her superiors at the Language Directorate that she had video footage of the abuse, but she was never asked to show it to them. She denies that anybody had asked her to write a formal report – she had already referred to the abuse on several occasions, also in writing. She claims all her enquiries were ignored and at the end of 2014 she was instructed to return the iPad together with a report on the children’s academic progress.
The student was also reminded that the contract the NWU had signed with the organisation sponsoring the research meant that she could not disclose anything about the project.
The student left the NWU’s Potchefstroom campus and started working in Cape Town at the beginning of 2015. She was convinced that she would be victimised if she continued to make a fuss about the issue. (It’s important to note that the student, who had just finished her Master’s degree, is very loyal to the NWU and though disturbed by what she had seen, she did not want to rock the boat.)
In response to a question about whether the NWU had ethical clearance to undertake such research in schools, a spokesperson claimed the university’s Language Directorate had been given blanket permission for “action research” from 2009 to 2014. No more detail was provided about the specific ethical parameters of this research project.
The university gave no indication that any effort has been made since by the Language Directorate to ensure that the abusive teacher was taken to task.
In their formal response they mentioned that the iPad has been reset to its factory settings and implied that with the evidence now lost, nothing can be done about the situation. According to the spokesperson the research has been concluded and will be given to the sponsor, the Dagbreek Trust, who will decide what to do with it.
This is where a very revealing context comes into play.
Proof of the advantages of mother tongue education, even at primary school level, is absolutely crucial to the NWU at a time when its language policy is at the centre of a fierce political storm about the future of the Potchefstroom campus.
A conservative group of academics on the campus, supported by right-wing organisations such as Solidariteit and AfriForum, have been desperate to show that the pressure on the Potchefstroom campus to transform and become more racially inclusive is essentially an assault on Afrikaans.
The Dagbreek Trust is a secretive fund that is primarily concerned about the promotion and survival of Afrikaans. The current chairperson is Theuns Eloff, the discredited former vice-chancellor of the NWU who left the university shortly after an exposé in 2014 of initiation ceremonies using Nazi symbolism that were still taking place on the Potchefstroom campus.
The Dagbreek Trust has pumped vast amounts into the translation services at the NWU. It is not far fetched to assume the Language Directorate has an economic motive to give the Dagbreek Trust the results it wants.
The Directorate is notorious on the Potchefstroom campus for their obsession with Afrikaans tuition. They have come down like a ton of bricks on lecturers and students who have dared to question the effectiveness of the translation services.
With the stakes so high, it is difficult to see how the Language Directorate would choose to jeopardise research that involves the advantages of mother tongue education. Anecdotal evidence suggests many English students are unhappy with the translation services, but the NWU’s official research contradicts this.
It is also fair to assume that the management of a university, where a group of avowed Christians wield so much influence, would not really object to a teacher who imposes her radical religious beliefs on children. Many lecturers on the Potchefstroom campus still force students to listen to a prayer before they start their classes. The campus rector, Herman van Schalkwyk, recently expressed a yearning for the Potchefstroom campus to return to its Christian roots as the Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education.
Even the teacher’s homophobic beliefs would not be particularly offensive to an institution where the theology faculty openly discriminates against gays. The idea of physical punishment is also not a foreign concept on a campus with a culture of militarised student activities.
Simply put, it didn’t suit the people who had commissioned the research to report the child abuse.
The kids I saw crying in the video are not just the victims of a misguided teacher. It is also their misfortune that the people who could actually make a difference to their lives are part of a heartless machine obsessed with power politics.
In the end it’s not important if the system doesn’t work for poor black kids. All that matters to the people in charge is that they keep their jobs and that the status quo at an overwhelmingly white Afrikaans Christian tertiary institution remains intact. DM
Hannelie Booyens is creative director of Kreativmedia Hub in Potchefstroom. While she was a lecturer in journalism at the School of Communication Studies on the Potchefstroom campus of the NWU in 2012/13 she often criticised initiation practices on social media and first wrote about the Nazi salute on the Potchefstroom campus in a column for Beeld newspaper in December 2013. She left the NWU in February 2014.
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