A grade 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 ‘non-whites’ 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.