‘Educators have a right to express their views’

The Western Cape Education Department is investigating an incident where a history teacher at Vista High School put up “Yes to Judaism, no to Zionism” posters outside the school last month.

The posters drew criticism from the director of United Herzlia Schools, Geoff Cohen, who said Grade 11 Herzlia pupils providing tutoring at Vista High School were shocked to see the posters when arriving last month.

He called the posters “counter productive”. “I can’t see any educational benefits from it. We teach our kids to be tolerant. We need to promote goodwill.”

He said that after discussions with Vista High School, they were willing to continue with the tutoring programme.

Daniel Linde, deputy director of the Equal Education Law Centre, said they had discussed the matter with members of the community. “Our position on the matter is that schools must be a place of political and philosophical debate and that teachers must have the freedom of expression to spark this debate.”

He said they would like to see political discussions take place in schools as long as there was no hate speech, as stated in the South African Schools Act.

Mr Linde also said he was concerned about the department’s decision to order the removal of the posters without consultation with the schools or the teacher involved. He also said that officials needed to have a better understanding of the act.

Osman Shaboodien, chairperson of the Bo-Kaap Civic and Residents’ Association, said Vista High School was a non-racial school with a long history of involvement in the struggle against apartheid.

“There is a lot of misinformation and the incident was blown out of proportion.”

He said the community had met with the school’s board to discuss the incident as well as other matters at the school. He added that he was surprised the department had ordered the school to take down the posters but said he hoped nothing further would happen as a result of the incident.

Millicent Merton, spokesperson for the Western Cape Education Department, said the teacher involved was not suspended. However, she said that the matter was still under investigation. When asked if teachers at schools have enough freedom of expression, Ms Merton responded by saying: “All educators have a right to express their views, subject to the Constitution and relevant legislation. Educators are appointed in terms of the Employment of Educators Act and if an educator commits misconduct and there is a breakdown in the employment relationship he/she can be charged with misconduct.”

She added that Section 33A of the South African Schools Act prohibits schools from being used as political platforms. In addition, the Code of Professional Ethics of the South African Council of Educators (SACE) prohibits teachers from abusing their position for financial or political gain.