Roedean works fast to defuse racial wran­gles

Apol­ogy to poet pupil and sud­den of­fer to ‘re­dun­dant’ teacher

Sunday Times - - News Education - By PREGA GOVENDER

A Jo­han­nes­burg pri­vate school this week moved to avert a racially sen­si­tive spat by re-em­ploy­ing a black teacher a day af­ter an­nounc­ing that she would be leav­ing.

Just hours af­ter re­ceiv­ing ques­tions from the Sun­day Times about why life ori­en­ta­tion teacher Tshidi Mo­godiri had been let go, Roedean — where al­most 90% of teach­ers are white — called her and of­fered her a new po­si­tion at the school.

The about-turn comes af­ter the all-girl school’s prin­ci­pal, Mur­ray Thomas, apol­o­gised at a school as­sem­bly on Wed­nes­day for say­ing that a black girl’s poem, about the mis­pro­nun­ci­a­tion of names, which was not meant to of­fend any­one, did just that.

The in­ci­dents at Roedean fol­low the re­cent con­struc­tive dis­missal of Nozipho Mthembu, the first black class teacher at Rusten­burg Girls’ Ju­nior School in Cape Town. She com­plained of dis­crim­i­na­tory treat­ment by the school.

Thomas in­formed staff in an e-mail on Tues­day Mo­godiri would be leav­ing when the school closed for the Christ­mas hol­i­days.

Dur­ing the school’s year-end func­tion on Wed­nes­day, an emo­tional Mo­godiri, who has been at the school for more than 10 years, bade farewell to her col­leagues, telling them she was leav­ing with a heavy heart.

That af­ter­noon, the Sun­day Times sent the school the ques­tions. That evening Mo­godiri was called to an ur­gent meeting, where she was told about her new post.

Teach­ers who did not want to be named told the Sun­day Times Mo­godiri was “dis­gusted” and dis­ap­pointed af­ter be­ing told ear­lier this year her post was go­ing to be made re­dun­dant.

“She did not want to leave. I have no doubt that it was as a re­sult of those ques­tions [from the Sun­day Times] that she was re-em­ployed,” said a teacher.

Mo­godiri de­clined to com­ment.

Of the 106 per­ma­nent teach­ers at the school, 94 are white and 12 black. All eight members of the ex­ec­u­tive are white, and 52% of the pupils are black and 48% white.

Thomas’s apol­ogy at the as­sem­bly on Wed­nes­day was to grade 9 pupil Avela Swana, for re­marks he made at an as­sem­bly in Oc­to­ber about a poem she re­cited.

Swana’s poem about names be­ing mis­pro­nounced at school is said to have an­gered sev­eral white teach­ers.

She wrote: “Your mis­pro­nounc­ing my name val­i­dates the fact that I, am in fact, still a black girl, in a ma­jor­ity white school.”

She also wrote in her poem that half the peo­ple black pupils saw daily did not know who they were or how to pro­nounce their names and had not both­ered to ask them.

In his ad­dress at as­sem­bly on Oc­to­ber 5, about nine days af­ter Swana re­cited her poem, Thomas said: “I can­not pos­si­bly speak about all facets of this in­ci­dent, other than to say, for some peo­ple, I un­der­stand and em­pathise with the hurt you feel.

“There were some ap­par­ent gen­er­al­i­sa­tions in the poem which, al­though not mean­ing to cause deep of­fence, did ex­actly that.”

Apol­o­gis­ing for his re­marks about Swana’s po­etry recital at as­sem­bly this week, Thomas said: “Gen­er­a­tions of Roedean girls be­fore you, and many of your teach­ers and par­ents, live lives as strong and pur­pose­ful lead­ers. Lead­ers also say sorry when they get things wrong. I speak from per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence here.”

He said: “Avela Swana had the courage to say, ‘No­tice the value of my name and per­sonal story’ when she pre­sented her poem ear­lier this term.”

At the school’s speech night in Oc­to­ber, Au­drey Mothupi, chair of the board at Roedean, praised Swana for her “courage to speak up”.

A teacher, how­ever, said there had been “some very loud, very an­gry voices in the staff room from most of the older guard of teach­ers who said it [the poem] was dis­gust­ing and dis­re­spect­ful”.

In an e-mailed re­sponse to the Sun­day Times, Thomas said only two out of 74 teach­ers had ex­pressed concern about the tone of the poem.

“For the record, the poem was thought­pro­vok­ing and ex­cep­tion­ally ma­ture,” he said. Swana, whose poem has been pub­lished in the an­nual school mag­a­zine, de­clined to speak to Sun­day Times this week.

Thomas would not say why the school sud­denly de­cided to re-em­ploy Mo­godiri but said her new role would be worked out with her in due course.

“At her exit in­ter­view on De­cem­ber 4, the ex­ec­u­tive staff en­gaged to dis­cuss both her strengths and years of ser­vice she has given Roedean, and in light of this, how best to re­de­ploy her skills.”

Thomas said the school would em­ploy black can­di­dates in posts that would be left va­cant by the re­tire­ment of three se­nior ex­ec­u­tives in the next two years and 30 teach­ers in the next five years.

Pic­ture: Face­book

Tshidi Mo­godiri

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