‘Are black teach­ers real teach­ers?’

Rusten­burg Girls’ Ju­nior School al­legedly ‘co­erced’ teacher Nozipho Mthembu to leave

Mail & Guardian - - News - Ra’eesa Pather

Agrade five pupil at a school in the pris­tine south­ern sub­urbs of Cape Town asked a flab­ber­gasted par­ent “Are black teach­ers real teach­ers?” “I was lift­ing a bunch of chil­dren [to a hockey game]. They were dis­cussing Ms Mthembu be­ing ab­sent and then the lit­tle girl asked the ques­tion,” said the par­ent.

Rusten­burg Girls’ Ju­nior School (RGJS) is fac­ing al­le­ga­tions of racism. Nozipho Mthembu, a class teacher asked to re­sign by the school, has just agreed to a set­tle­ment reached in her case be­fore the Com­mis­sion for Con­cil­i­a­tion, Me­di­a­tion and Ar­bi­tra­tion (CCMA), and a group of par­ents are lead­ing an an­gry re­volt against the way the school is al­leged to have treated her.

The school’s prin­ci­pal is due to take early re­tire­ment, and the Western Cape ed­u­ca­tion depart­ment (WCED) is fac­ing damn­ing claims that it was in­ef­fec­tive in ad­dress­ing the al­leged racism.

Mthembu be­gan teach­ing at the school in Jan­uary. She had been a pupil there and com­pleted her teach­ing de­gree at the Univer­sity of Cape Town. Mthembu did her teach­ers’ train­ing at Rusten­burg. Par­ents said she was a likely can­di­date to meet the school’s ex­pec­ta­tions.

But it all un­rav­elled, ac­cord­ing to the frus­trated grade five par­ents.

In Au­gust last year, three par­ents re­signed from the school gov­ern­ing body (SGB), say­ing they were alarmed by the way the school, in their view, blocked trans­for­ma­tion. They took par­tic­u­lar is­sue with prin­ci­pal Di Berry, say­ing she had treated their trans­for­ma­tion pro­pos­als with “neg­a­tiv­ity”.

They wrote a let­ter ex­plain­ing their is­sues: “From the be­gin­ning of our terms we need to note that we were never treated as al­lies in the bat­tle for in­clu­siv­ity, but rather as ad­ver­saries im­ping­ing on some­one’s turf.

“If the prin­ci­pal still talks of ‘non­whites’ what does that say about our chil­dren? Are they non-some­thing, or not-good-enough-some­thing?”

The par­ents then formed a group called Par­ents for Change. They put pres­sure on the school to be trans­par­ent about its trans­for­ma­tion agenda and wrote to the head of the pro­vin­cial ed­u­ca­tion depart­ment, Brian Schreuder, say­ing that with­out an in­ves­ti­ga­tion “the un­ten­able sit­u­a­tion at RGJS will not be re­solved”.

Mthembu was among the first black teach­ers to be ap­pointed at the school. Be­fore, it had only em­ployed black staff to teach isiXhosa.

But within nine months she was ad­mit­ted to hos­pi­tal suf­fer­ing from stress and anx­i­ety. Even­tu­ally, she says, she was “co­erced” into leav­ing the school.

Soon af­ter Mthembu be­gan work­ing, her com­pe­tency was ques­tioned by par­ents who are al­leged not to have wanted their daugh­ters in her class.

“I’ve got a daugh­ter in grade five. I then start hear­ing from her and some of her friends that the girls are say­ing that Ms Mthembu is not a real teacher,” a mother said.

“Even with other moth­ers, I would raise it and I would say: ‘Have you heard about Ms Mthembu?’ and then the re­ply would be ‘Yes, it’s ter­ri­ble, she doesn’t know how to teach’. I don’t know how the school could let this hap­pen,” the mother con­tin­ued.

The SGB ini­tially said, through its chair­per­son Gavin Dow­nard in an email, that such re­marks were never brought to their at­ten­tion, but the Mail & Guardian has seen an email sent to the SGB in Au­gust from a par­ent dis­cussing the “dis­turb­ing toxic talk” about Mthembu. Dow­nard later said in a phone call that the gov­ern­ing body was in­formed about the re­marks and he had told par­ents it was un­ac­cept­able.

One par­ent said she was aware that there were at least two in­ci­dences of bul­ly­ing: chil­dren who would not crit­i­cise Mthembu were ex­cluded by other pupils from play­ing with them.

Mthembu said she did not know why par­ents com­plained about her. As a young teacher, she had asked the school for as­sis­tance when she had dif­fi­cul­ties teach­ing, she said, but felt that the school had un­der­mined her. She said the school had put her on an “eight-point” per­for­mance guide with­out telling her why. But Dow­nard said Mthembu had never told the school that she felt un­der­mined.

In early Septem­ber, Berry and Dow­nard told her that she would have to re­sign or face dis­ci­plinary ac­tion, but did not give rea­sons, Mthembu said. Dow­nard said nu­mer­ous dis­cus­sions had been held with Mthembu about her per­for­mance, but only the prin­ci­pal could pro­vide in­sight on the stan­dards she al­legedly did not meet in the class­room. The prin­ci­pal did not pro­vide com­ment at the time of pub­lish­ing.

On Septem­ber 11, Mthembu re­signed. She said she was pres­sured into the de­ci­sion. She laid a com­plaint at the CCMA for con­struc­tive dis­missal, but does not be­lieve the school was racist. A set­tle­ment was reached on Wed­nes­day. RGJS apol­o­gised to Mthembu af­ter she said that she felt un­sup­ported by the school. Dow­nard said the school did not fol­low “tra­di­tional” hu­man re­sources poli­cies by giv­ing warn­ings to Mthembu, but had sub­se­quently ap­pointed an in­de­pen­dent hu­man re­sources prac­ti­tioner to work with the school on its poli­cies.

The school is now draft­ing a code of con­duct for par­ents.

Some par­ents, how­ever, have be­come dis­trust­ful of the school. “We have been lied to, we have been mis­led, and I shud­der at the thought that these peo­ple ac­tu­ally teach my daugh­ter,” one par­ent said.

The SGB has ad­mit­ted that its staff is not as di­verse as it should be. “We are not where we need to be and we ac­knowl­edge this,” Dow­nard said.

He also said the SGB is “re­view­ing all poli­cies at the school” and “iden­ti­fy­ing bar­ri­ers to trans­for­ma­tion”.

The ed­u­ca­tion depart­ment says it is in dis­cus­sions with the school, but has left it to the SGB to take ac­tion.

“The WCED is aware of al­le­ga­tions of racism at the school,” the depart­ment said. “The SGB has been en­cour­aged to con­tinue en­gage­ments with con­cerned par­ents.”

The par­ents hope the school will im­ple­ment gen­uine trans­for­ma­tion.

“There are lit­tle girls run­ning around the school now with the im­pres­sion that black peo­ple can’t teach,” one par­ent said.

Teacher row: Rusten­burg Girls’ Ju­nior School in Ron­de­bosch, Cape Town, is in the process of draft­ing a code of con­duct for par­ents. Photo: David Har­ri­son

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