Roedean works fast to defuse racial wrangles
Apology to poet pupil and sudden offer to ‘redundant’ teacher
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.