Changing demographics behind decision to place English pupils at Hoërskool Overvaal, court hears

Pretoria – The Gauteng education department has argued that changing demographics were behind its decision to place pupils to be taught in English at Hoërskool Overvaal, an Afrikaans medium of instruction school.

The school's governing body brought an urgent application before the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria on Tuesday in a bid to overturn the department's decision to place an additional 55 pupils at the school.

On Friday, Advocate Kumbira Toma, for the department, told the court that the Vereeniging school was the only secondary school servicing five suburbs, all of which were multi-racial communities.

Toma argued that because the demographics had changed, there was currently a higher demand for tuition in English by pupils now residing in the area.

"The bottom line is to show to the court that the demographics of the society have changed, hence there is a high demand of English evidenced by the two English primary schools in the area," said Toma.

"Those are the dynamics of a society that has changed, so there is a need to adapt."

Argument over capacity

Toma said that the nearest two English high schools, General Smuts and Phoenix high schools, were full and further away.

These factors informed the decision to place the pupils at Hoërskool Overvaal, which the department contended had the space.

However, Hoërskool Overvaal contested that they were at capacity and could not admit additional pupils.

In addition, it said that the principals of both General Smuts and Phoenix high schools had declared they had the capacity to take in the pupils. 

But, as Judge Bill Prinsloo commented: "Lo and behold, two days later," there were two notes from the principals of these schools which said otherwise. Both heads submitted supplementary affidavits stating they had been mistaken.

Prinsloo said it was unusual for a principal, who was a pillar of society, to perjure themselves, and questioned whether the first statements made under oath amounted to perjury.

Toma said the principals made these statements without the relevant knowledge as to the admissions to their respective schools.

Department 'in contravention of Schools Act'

The department argued that the entire problem of refusing the pupils entry into the school, was not an issue of capacity, but rather language as referenced by the fact that the school admitted a further 20 pupils after the initial intake.

"If the learner applies, that learner ought to be admitted, whether English or Afrikaans, or whatever language. The issue of how that learner will then be taught in school; then it revolves again on the department," said Toma.

"It is my submission that the decision to place those learners, is a decision that is lawful and properly authorised by valid legislation," he added.

Advocate Albert Lamey, for the school, argued on Thursday that enforcing directives which go against the school's language policy was in contravention of the South African Schools Act.

"You cannot expect the school against its language policy to admit English learners in a school whose medium is Afrikaans," Lamey told the High Court.

He added that the department of education could not negate a single language policy from a school that was growing in the number of pupils wanting to learn in that language, including learners "of all colours".

Prinsloo postponed judgment to Monday.