On Wednesday, David Makhura the incoming premier of Gauteng announced his new administration and shuffled Panyaza Lesufi out of the education portfolio. He will now be the new member of executive council (MEC) for finance and e-government. His tenure in education was nothing if not notable – both for his successes, and his long fight against the vestiges of the apartheid education in the system. We look at some of his finest moments.
UPDATE: Makhura announced on May 31 that after receiving feedback from the public around his new administration, he would be shuffling Lesufi back in the position of Education MEC: “I have now decided that MEC Panyaza Lesufi will return to the Education portfolio as the MEC for Education & Youth Development… Let the team get to work & serve the people of GP.”
His fight to rid Gauteng schools of the legacy of apartheid…
Lesufi is most famous (and notorious) for his various clashes against schools which still harboured racist policies, or still favoured exclusively Afrikaans pupils over everyone else. One of his final acts as education MEC was to approve the changing of the name of a Pretoria school from Hoërskool HF Verwoerd to Rietondale Secondary School. “My mission in this world is to reverse everything this man called Verwoerd has done to our education system. Others names like Jan Smuts will also fall,” he declared.
His most famous battle was against Hoërskool Overvaal in the Vaal Triangle, after the school refused in 2018 to take on 55 additional pupils, who needed to be instructed in English. He eventually lost the case before the Constitutional Court, which argued that he should have checked that other English-instruction schools in the area could take the pupils.
After that case was completed, Lesufi wrote: “This philosophy of racial division, and cultural and language individualism remain entrenched in our education system. That is why Hoërskool Overvaal’s legal victory in keeping out 55 grade 8 English learners from the Afrikaans school in Vereeniging was a major setback for transformation and the struggle for a non-racial society.”
In April, Lesufi announced a new admissions policy for the province, which scrapped a 5km radius feeder zone for schools, important for ending apartheid spatial planning, and crucially in his battle against Afrikaans-onlys schools, now sets policy on the medium of teaching at the departmental, and not school level.
…And his artful handling of racist trolls
Predictably, and regrettably, Lesufi’s stance on non-racialism in schools earned him the ire of the Afrikaner right-wing, including the white supremacist group AfriForum. He was also the victim of an enormous amount of online – and real-life – trolling, which he always handled with aplomb.
In the midst of the Overvaal matter, he revealed that he and his family had been threatened. His response? “I am not in a state where I believe I need to watch my back…there are people who have called institutions asking when my children will be picked up, I will not go to the police. If I have to pay with my life for non-racialism, I will do that. I am not the first one.”
It should surprise nobody to learn that of course Lesufi, who is also the deputy chairperson of the African National Congress in Gauteng, was in the trenches during the struggle. His are not merely idle boasts…
How we stood up for students whose rights had been trampled
When the Pretoria Girls High School controversy broke – in which several pupils, including Zulaikha Patel, alleged racist policies in their school, Lesufi wasted no time at all. He suspended the school policies which discriminated against black girls, and launched an investigation which uncovered that indeed, the complainants were correct.
“I’m quite convinced that I need to elevate this resolution to other schools in the province. I’m of the strong view that some of the issues raised in this school are not in this school alone. I will elevate these issues and I will find a mechanism of dealing with them across the province. That means all the codes of conduct from schools across the province will be immediately under review so that we don’t find ourselves in a similar situation in another school,” Lesufi said.
Lesufi also played a big role in changing policies at Jeppe High School for Girls, after seven Muslim girls were disciplined for wearing hijabs to school.
And how we championed building new schools in the province
The Gauteng department embarked on a huge programme of upgrading existing infrastructure, and building new schools.
In February and March, Lesufi opened one new school per week.
This has not only been necessary in order to improve the education of school learners in Gauteng, but also to deal with the fact that the province suffers a big shortage of schools.
His support for Nkosana Makate against Vodacom
Lesufi didn’t limit his activism to education matters either – he threw his support behind Nkosana Makate, the inventor of the ‘please call me’ service, when it became clear that Vodacom were not going to abide by the court rulings in the matter.
Lesufi called for a boycott of the network provider, saying: “I am always on the side of the poor, I am always in the side of the people who are going through injustices.” Not even a cease-and-desist from the company could deter him.
Featured image by By Jairus Mmutle (GCIS)