K-word row rocks top private school
Hearing acquits her but principal says there may have been malicious intent
Is it ever acceptable to use the k-word? When a black pupil asked her history teacher in class to explain the meaning of the word, she did not realise it would land her in trouble.
The Grade 9 pupil at the St Dominic’s College private school in Welkom was summoned to a disciplinary hearing for using “offensive racial language” earlier this month.
She was also charged with disrupting the lesson because her question “culminated in an unhappiness felt by other learners . . . in the same class”.
According to the charges, the pupil repeated “the offensive word twice” despite being instructed to stop using it by her history teacher, Grant Trewern.
The 15-year-old pupil, whose father is a prominent Free State politician, was subsequently found not guilty on all charges this month by a three-member disciplinary panel made up of staff members.
But she said she was now afraid to ask questions in class, for fear of being charged again.
The teen insisted this week her question was not meant to be malicious.
She said Trewern had been introducing the topic of apartheid to pupils so they could prepare for an oral presentation on it when she asked him, “What does the word k **** r mean?”
“He said it had something to do with religion and non-believers.”
She said she did not understand him and had asked him how Christianity and nonbelievers were linked to the use of the word.
“It was at this point that he said, ‘Don’t use offensive language’. I am very hurt because I didn’t use it to offend anyone. I should not have been charged.”
The pupil’s mother said Trewern should have provided an explanation to her daughter on why the k-word was used during apartheid.
A teacher at the Catholic school, who did not want to be identified, said it was “ridiculous” and “laughable” for the school to have charged the pupil.
“These kids weren’t born in the apartheid era and many of them are very, very privileged children who have no idea what it was like [during apartheid], so they want to explore these issues.
“She [the pupil] probably just wanted to say the word a few times to hear it in her own head. It was a form of processing this information. In my class, I encourage children to discuss absolutely anything, but obviously it has to be relevant to the subject. I think it’s important for them to air their views and discuss things among each other.”
The teacher said that even if the pupil was trying to provoke the teacher or pupils by using the k-word, it was the teacher’s job to keep things in check and “to just treat it in an academic fashion”.
However, Advocate Mohamed Ameermia, a commissioner of the South African Human Rights Commission (HRC), said the pupil should be given counselling to sensitise her “to the lived experience of people in the past who were called those names”.
‘Wrong both ways’
“This kid must be basically told about the racial prejudices and racial sensitivities that go around these kind of things. It was used to demean people and belittle people.
“The k-word should never be used, because it’s outlawed in the constitution.”
Ameermia said it did not make it right if a black person used the k-word, adding: “It’s wrong both ways, whether it’s uttered by a black or white person.”
He said 500 of the 700 complaints on equality matters received by the HRC in the past financial year related to racism.
The principal of St Dominic’s, Shane Gaffney, said the verdict showed that the school’s system gave pupils a fair hearing.
“Irrespective of race, the use of the kword by anyone, including a pupil, is potentially inflammatory.
“I am strongly of the opinion that it is inappropriate, even in a history class, to use such a highly charged word which has brought division in our country due to its negative connotation for decades.”
He said that the teacher provided a perfectly suitable explanation in response to the pupil’s question.
“The pupil’s refusal to desist from using the term suggested strongly that she was trying to extract a response from the teacher that would compromise him. This suggested a malicious intent on the part of the pupil.”
It was used to demean people and belittle people. The k-word should never be used. Mohamed Ameermia, below A commissioner of the SAHRC
School principal Shane Gaffney.
History teacher Grant Trewern.