Legal battles between the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) and Heathfield High School principal Wesley Neumann may go to the labour court soon after the embattled principal was granted an application for an interdict to stop the WCED’s disciplinary action against him. Neumann is under fire for his refusal to reopen the school during the Western Cape’s Covid-19 peak. The WCED had laid ten charges against Neumann for his conduct at the school and, ahead of his disciplinary hearing, he announced that he will seek the interdict. WCED spokesperson Broanagh Hammond disputed claims that the interdict was granted, explaining that he had instead been given permission to argue the interdict in court on 27 October 2020. Hammond said the department welcomed the court’s postponement, which allows it time to prepare its opposition.
“Mr Neumann’s application to interdict his disciplinary proceeding for an indefinite period will still be heard. This was done by agreement between our lawyers and the lawyers for Mr Neumann. We therefore welcome the decision by the Labour Court to postpone Mr Neumann’s court application,” read a statement by the department.
She added that the disciplinary hearing will continue after the court date.
“Mr Neumann served court papers only on Friday night, wanting the case heard this morning (Tuesday). He has been aware of the charges against him for over a month but has filed at the last minute before his internal hearing. We thus had no opportunity to prepare papers opposing his claim. The postponement until 27 October 2020 will give us the opportunity to do so. We have therefore postponed his internal disciplinary hearing – which will be heard on the 28th of October,” the statement continued.
Neumann had also indicated an intention to take the department to court over intimidation, particularly by the provincial Head of Education, Brian Schroeder. A spokesperson for the Executive Action Group in Heathfield Allan Liebenberg stated that once the matter with Neumann has been finalized, the spotlight would fall onto Schreuder, whose appointment Neumann is contesting. It follows a letter handed to the department and the president, on behalf of four principals calling on schools to remain closed until the daily number of coronavirus infections decreases. Liebenberg recalled the fear and anxiety among school staff, parents and teachers, who felt that schools were open prematurely.
According to Liebenberg, the letter was written on behalf of the School Governing Body and claimed it was misinterpreted by Schreuder. Liebenberg said that Schreuder declined multiple invitations to engage with the SGB and parents.
“We feel that the head of education took some of the contents that Wesley wrote to him very personally and is hell-bent on getting rid of this very popular principal. Our attorney has asked on numerous occasions to hold up with the disciplinary action against (Neumann), until the position of the HOD has been examined.”
Both Liebenberg and ANC spokesperson on education in the legislature Khalid Sayed strongly believe Schreuder’s appointment should be challenged.
“The Public Service Commission has determined, and it was a final determination, that the HOD appointment had been irregular and as such, whatever decision he made would become invalid,” said Liebenberg.
Sayed wrote an opinion piece unpacking the status of the WCED, using Schroeder as “a case study”. The piece nevertheless raised eyebrows over Sayed’s concern around “attitude of the political management” of the department under MEC Debbie Schafer. The appointment, Sayed explained, should have been rejected for numerous reasons, including that Schreuder is over the age of 65 and “for his disregard of public participation”.
Liebenberg criticised the “bureaucracy that exists within the WCED”, saying this does not belong in a democracy.
“It is the same bureaucracy and dictatorship that we saw in apartheid. You either do as they say or they crush you. We are saying that this doesn’t belong in a democratic state.”
Liebenberg accused the department of fueling the dispute, noting that the “only resort the marginalized and the poor have is to go to town and protest”. He added that the WCED’s frustration is misplaced since Neumann is an asset to the state.
“When we look at this from the angle of the community (and) school, then they have every right to feel regret about what has happened. But, we are saying that WCED is being very oppressive. We have tried to speak on numerous occasions,” he said.
Liebenberg also highlighted that the department is “spending a lot of state money” in order to get rid of Neumann.
“If they don’t know he is a state asset then they should go and speak to the people in Heathfield, to the parents of Heathfield high school. It is absolutely ridiculous that the Head of Education cannot see what the people on the ground can see.”
The Premier’s office could not provide formal comment but is expected to issue a statement on the matter.