Police disperse protesting members of the ANC and EFF outside Hoerskool Overvaal in Vereeniging during a protest over the lack of transformation on the opening day of school after the North Gauteng High court ordered that the government had acted unlawfully in pressuring the school to take on 55 English speaking pupils. Picture: ALAISTER RUSSELL
Police disperse protesting members of the ANC and EFF outside Hoerskool Overvaal in Vereeniging during a protest over the lack of transformation on the opening day of school after the North Gauteng High court ordered that the government had acted unlawfully in pressuring the school to take on 55 English speaking pupils. Picture: ALAISTER RUSSELL

As protests erupted outside Hoërskool Overvaal on Wednesday, over the refusal to accept 55 English children‚ it needs to be asked: is it in the children’s best interest to attend the school in the first place?

This is the essence of a question being asked by the Centre for Child Law following a similar case that took place in Fochville six years ago.

In 2012‚ the Gauteng Department of Education placed 37 English pupils into the Afrikaans-medium Hoërskool Fochville; a court case ensued with a subsequent settlement between parents and the government.

As part of the settlement‚ Hoërskool Fochville took in the 37 pupils for five years — and the department agreed to build a new English-medium school in the area. But‚ the Centre for Child Law notes‚ it wasn’t always plain sailing for the pupils‚ who, at times, faced bullying and discrimination.

"They made the best of it‚" according to the centre’s deputy director and lawyer Karabo Ozah. The centre interviewed them after they finished matric in 2016, and they described a "bumpy ride". "Their day-to-day lives were not smooth sailing."

Now‚ with the issues and tensions at Overvaal‚ Ozah has urged the department and the school to put the children’s interests at the centre of the fight for admission, saying "Parents want the best for their children‚ but has anyone asked the children how they feel?"

In a repeat of the Fochville drama‚ Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi vowed to fight the Pretoria High Court order that found the department had acted unlawfully in trying to force the 55 English pupils into Hoërskool Overvaal.

Following the Friday court order‚ angry EFF members and furious parents threatened to burn the Vereeniging school down. Protest action at the school on Wednesday also turned violent.

Were the court case outcome different and the 55 children pushed into Hoërskool Overvaal‚ Ozah wondered if the children would excel at a school "where they are not wanted". This was based on the Fochville example‚ where some of the interviewed English pupils wondered what they had "achieved" when they left school given that the school had remained Afrikaans medium. They wondered what the purpose of the court battle was.

Ozah said that the pupils thought: "We were made to suffer — and then what?" South African law and the Constitution asks that the children’s interest be placed in centre of decisions about them.

The battle for Hoërskool Overvaal is partly about a battle for admission into middle-class schools of which there is a shortage‚ said Prof Brahm Fleisch of the Wits School of Education, which is a nuanced and complicated fight and less about just language issues.

"One of the big drivers of opportunity [for poorer people] is how some of the working-class has managed to access former Model C schools." But the numbers of spaces for the poor are limited in these schools‚ he said.

In rapidly expanding areas in Gauteng, such as Midvaal‚ Randburg‚ Bryanston‚ and Fourways‚ there are not enough middle-class schools and no new middle-class schools have been built in years‚ Fleisch said. Research by the Centre for Child Law also found that the government has not built nearly enough schools in Gauteng.

Warned Ozah: "Government must maximise the use of government schools, but it must also accept it has not built enough schools. When we need transformation‚ we also have to think about the pupils."