Race row hits upmarket school

Another Curro school, this time a preschool, has been rocked by allegations of racist labour practices, which has led to the resignation of three black teachers and outrage from a group of parents.

The Curro school in Waterfall, Gauteng, known as the Castle, takes children aged from three months to five years. It opened in January 2016 but immediately there were concerns, beginning with segregated staff rooms.

Sibongile Khumalo* said she found herself taking her lunch break in a staff room separate from her white colleagues. The signs on the staff rooms did not read “whites only” or “blacks only” but teaching assistants were segregated from teachers.

“All the blacks were teaching assistants and all the whites were teachers. We were told that one staff room is for teachers and the other is for the assistants,” Khumalo said. “I couldn’t go into the teacher staff room. I just felt uncomfortable.”

When she was promoted from assistant to teacher, she remained in the assistants’ staff room because in the teachers’ room “they would all just stop and look at you”, she said.

“We were three black teachers. We continued to use the assistants’ staff room because we could feel like we belonged there.”

Following complaints from parents, the school has now desegregated the staff rooms and an investigation is under way into other allegations of racist labour practices.

Khumalo was one of the first assistants to become fully qualified. She alleged the school delayed her promotion and less-qualified white people were appointed teachers. When she raised the matter with Graeme Waite, the executive head of the preschool, she was told that if she was unhappy she could leave.

“It was a way of killing my confidence or something because, by that time, I was destroyed. Only resilience kept me going,” Khumalo said. “I told myself that I’m not going to leave this school until I can prove a black person is competent.” Other staff members allege similar experiences of discrimination.

Despite her qualifications, Juliet Bongo* has to rely on her husband to assist with most of the household costs and can’t understand why the school pays her a low salary when parents pay a fee of R5 900 a month.

Bongo said less-qualified white staff members were earning more than her and, in one case, a temporary teacher was earning at least R2 000 more a month than she did. She wants to leave the school but needs an income.

Lerato Makhubela* gave up. After meeting Waite, she realised her salary would not be improved and she was struggling to keep herself going. She resigned this year and is now at a school where she is happy.

“With the salary they were giving me, I was not able to be financially stable to the point where I can’t even move out of home because now I still depend on my parents to assist me,” she said.

One of the black teachers said they knew white teachers were earning more because they were happy with their increases and sometimes revealed how much they were earning.

But their unhappiness wasn’t only about salaries. The teachers said a culture developed in which they were undermined by their white counterparts. Khumalo said she should have been called “Teacher Sibongile” by the children but one teacher would not allow it.

“This white teacher would tell children not to call black teachers teachers. If the child would call a black person a teacher, then this teacher would say, ‘No, she’s not a teacher’. But when a white receptionist comes through the class, she would tell the class to say ‘Morning, teacher’.

“It was as if only whites could be teachers and the blacks could not be teachers. A black teacher was almost fired because she complained about that,” Khumalo said.

A group of about 20 parents began investigating the school for alleged racist labour practices after one teacher resigned in May. They discovered salary discrepancies and unhappiness about the culture at the school. This led to many meetings with the school.

Eventually, they wrote a letter to Curro chief executive Andries Greyling, demanding that the school sack Waite because he was responsible for the alleged racist practices. In addition, they said, he was employed by the school and was also running a business that supplied the school with educational material.

“When all of the above is taken in the context of the fact that this man is white and levelling insults and threats against people of colour (parents and staff alike), well it certainly does not hold the school in a favourable light,” the parents wrote in the letter.

Last year, Adam Pillay* withdrew his two-year-old son from the school after he saw that his child was being treated differently to white children.

“It was around winter and a very cold day and I see my son in shorts with no socks and no shoes. His nose was running all the time and the teacher said he must go home.

“But then I saw a racially advantaged child at the school and their nose was runny but my child had to be at home.” Pillay’s son has a condition in which fluid builds up in his ears, making it difficult for him to hear. Grommets were inserted to help him but his hearing difficulty has delayed his speech. The toddler still can’t speak, even when he needs help.

“We had a lot of concerns as parents. We had a few issues where he never had a nappy rash and then he was coming home with a rash. His speech therapist wasn’t giving us feedback, and sometimes we would find that they would just put his wet underwear in his bag,” Pillay said.

He felt his son was being unfairly treated and, when he raised it with Waite, he was told that perhaps his child did not fit in at Curro.

“Waite told us his son runs around without shoes all the time. He told me, ‘You guys must learn to make your children more resilient’,” Pillay said.

Pillay left, worried that his son wouldn’t be able to speak up if something went wrong.

The salary of one staff member was rectified after the parents put pressure on the school.

The school’s internal investigation, led by two external investigators, is under way. Waite remains head executive of the primary school but he and the principal have been suspended from the preschool.

“We are presently [sic] conducting an investigation into allegations relating to irregular management practices. Two employees were suspended pending the investigation. We respectfully request that we be given an opportunity to thoroughly and expeditiously conclude such investigation,” Curro’s head office said in an email to the Mail & Guardian.

Teachers said that workshops have been introduced to deal with past unfair practices but some of them are still waiting to be paid a decent wage.

“Even if they work on a budget, if they have teachers who are not qualified and they earn what I am earning, it is also not fair for me because I am qualified,” said Bongo.

Numerous attempts to get comment from Graeme Waite, the executive head of the preschool, proved fruitless.

*Not their real names

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Raeesa Pather
Raeesa Pather
Ra’eesa Pather is a Cape Town-based general news and features journalist.

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