[UPDATE] On Tuesday, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) condemned the way the KwaZulu Natal department of basic education (DBE) dealt with the #MaritzburgCollege matter. Speaking at a press conference, Commander-in-Chief Julius Malema said it was not enough that the DBE suspended the disciplinary processes of the pupils to investigate racism at the school.
“Maritzburg College management violated the constitutional rights of black students”, he said, “it should have been … instructed to drop those irrational, illegal and reactionary charges and apologise to the two black students for violating their constitutional right to freedom of expression.” Malema also said it is unclear what racism the department is investigating and when it’s expected to conclude.
The EFF is willing to support the students in question and their parents and offered legal assistance as well.
There is no school rule that trumps the Constitution, according to Advocate Thandoxulo Nkala – who is also an old boy at Maritzburg College, a prestigious public school for boys in Pietermaritzburg. Nkala is referring to an incident where the school wanted to charge two of its pupils for expressing political association. The charges have since been dropped.
Last Friday, a pupil at Maritzburg College tweeted a picture of himself and two classmates holding up T-shirts in support of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The T-shirts said, “EFF our last hope of getting our land back” and “Loading 2019” with the EFF logo.
The pupils were participating in a longstanding tradition which allows matrics to write well-wishes and personal views on their school shirts on their last official schooling day. Many schools follow this tradition.
Old boy of the school and cricket player Kevin Pietersen responded in disgust. He alerted the school in a tweet, saying this picture showed “total disrespect for a once great school”.
— KP (@KP24) 13 October 2017
The school responded to Pietersen and said “we are aware of it and certainly is not acceptable to us at all”. The school also asked him to delete the picture.
The matter blew up on social media. Tumi Sole, a social activist picked up on it when one of his followers tagged him in Pietersen’s response.
Sole tweeted out screenshots of the Pietersen-Maritzburg College engagement. He captioned the picture with a request that people retweet it. The tweet has been retweeted over 4 000 times.
Fighters, in case this pic comes up on your TL, RT it. pic.twitter.com/QdnN9hdP0o
— Tumi Sole (@tumisole) 13 October 2017
Sole also tweeted out the charge sheet that detailed the charges that the pupils would have faced.
charge sheet @MaritzCollege issued
Constitutionality of the policy & schools act will be challenged! pic.twitter.com/XfT9fCFlIA
— Tumi Sole (@tumisole) 14 October 2017
Constitutionally, every citizen has the freedom to make political choices, Nkala said. “This freedom is afforded to citizens of all ages, which includes pupils in high school. The Constitution also affords the right for ‘everyone’ to have the freedom of association, whether political or otherwise,” Nkala said.
Nkala said although political parties have age requirements to officially take up membership, this would not preclude for instance the right of pupils to express political views in support or otherwise of any political party. That expression would be protected by the right to make political choices, read with the right to freedom of expression.
No school would be able to take action against pupils who expressed association with a political party, unless the conduct amounts to a contravention of the law, Nkala said. S33A (1) and (2) of the 1996 South African Schools Act says no party-political activities may be conducted at school during school time. “Party-political activities” include a) campaigning; b) the conducting of rallies; c) the distribution of pamphlets and fliers; and d) the hanging or putting up of posters and banners.
In the Maritzburg College matter, Nkala believes the school wouldn’t have been able to prove that the pupil’s conduct is in contravention of the impugned legal rule. The wants to limit “party-political activities”, not political expressions of pupils in an individual and non-invading manner, he said.
Nkala said the school would not have been able to convince a competent independent panel that a pupil writing his political views on his school-leaving shirt, which he will not wear at school, could be reasonably construed as a party-political activity for the purpose of section 33A.
Julius Malema, the Commander-in-Chief of the EFF, rallied behind the boys.
— Julius Sello Malema (@Julius_S_Malema) 13 October 2017
The EFF warned the school that it was ready to defend its supporters “with any revolutionary means possible” and demanded that the school drop the charges.
In a statement, the EFF said the charges were a violation of the Constitution, offending the right to freedom of expression. “We reject this as pure apartheid, Nazi and colonial thinking on the part of the school,” wrote national spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi. He said all rules must be consistent with the supreme law of the land; the Constitution. “Maritzburg High, by charging our young fighters, is in direct violation of the constitution. It is offending their rights to freedom of expression,” he wrote.
Ndlozi said the school wanted to protect the “reactionary and anti-black racists who refuse to see blacks as equals and as rightful owners of the land”.
“If you look at one of the charges, it says one of those boys was inciting racial divide,” said Sole.
Sole is unconvinced, especially because the same school’s lacklustre response when a prefect called a black student the k-word. The prefect was suspended for a week, but still holds his badge.
Nkala said he could not explain how the school made the connection that the pupils’ expressions were racial or racially charged from looking at their T-shirts. “A predominantly white school cannot charge a black pupil for talking about land and say he is being “racial” or “racially charged”, unless you are admitting that the land issue is a white problem,” he said.
“To me it seems, the school overreacted,” Nkala said. He said it seems to be racial response of people who share different political views from the three boys – and who are willing to act dramatically and disproportionately to make that point.
The KwaZulu Natal education department is planning to investigate allegations of racism at the school. It said the learners could have been retaliating to the racism they had experienced; the department had received a number of allegations relating to racism at the school.
Featured image via Maritzburg College on Facebook
*Editors’ note: This story has been updated with a recent comment by Julius Malema