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Parents, W Cape education department clash over Rustenburg school racism allegations

UPDATE:

The Rustenburg Girls Junior School governing body has denied Nozipho Mthembu’s version that she was not aware of the details why complaints were made about her competency. The SGB said in a statement on Monday: “We would like to correct the notion that Ms. Mthembu was unaware of the challenges she experienced in carrying out her core functions as a teacher. We have records of various meetings with Ms. Mthembu where interventions were discussed and she acknowledged the issues raised in those meetings and the support offered by the school.”

A group of Rustenburg Girls Junior School (RGJS) parents have rubbished claims from the Western Cape Education Department that a black teacher, who left the school under alleged duress, was treated fairly.

Debbie Schäfer, the MEC for education, has said that RGJS — a top public school in the suburbs of Cape Town — had appropriately asked Grade 5 class teacher Nozipho Mthembu to resign, despite concerns from parents that the process was discriminatory.

“Ms Mthembu resigned after ongoing legitimate concerns that were raised with her. Out of respect for her privacy, these have not been disclosed,” Schäfer said in a statement on Sunday.

Mthembu has denied that she had voluntarily resigned, saying that the school “coerced” her into doing so. She was employed as a class teacher in January 2018, but within nine months she was hospitalised for stress and anxiety after feeling pressure from the school, she said.

The Mail & Guardian reported on Mthembu’s experience last week. Concerned parents spoke of how school children and their parents had seemingly believed that Mthembu was incompetent. Mthembu said she was never told why her professional ability was questioned. Gavin Downard, the SGB chairperson of RGJS, told the M&G last week that the school had numerous “discussions” with Mthembu about her performance.

READ MORE: Cape school accused of coercing black teacher to resign

The school apologised to Mthembu after a settlement was reached at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation, and Arbitration (CCMA). Mthembu had made a case for constructive dismissal.

But Schäfer has said that the SGB’s apology was not for racism, but rather for not following human resources (HR) procedure in Mthembu’s case.

“The admission of wrongdoing by the school at the CCMA was because of issues of procedure regarding the process followed — SGBs are not experts in HR processes — not because of racism,” Schäfer said.

Parents for Change, a group of concerned parents at Rustenburg, have now written a response to Schäfer disputing her statement.

“Ms Schäfer, like the SGB and the school, hides behind supposed ‘respect for her [Ms Mthembu’s] privacy’ as if their actions can be justified, [if] they are free to speak openly. We are aware of the circumstances, and they do not in any way justify the treatment Ms Mthembu received,” the parents have written.

“Furthermore, neither Ms Mthembu nor her privacy has been respected. She was subjected to numerous incidents of humiliation by parents — without the school or the SGB intervening. The principal entertained various complaints from parents, without once addressing any of them directly with Ms Mthembu.”

Downard said that the school knew about the alleged remarks parents had made about her ability to teach and that he had personally had raised it with parents. But Downard admitted that, following the incident, the SGB is also now “reviewing all policies at the school” and “identifying barriers to transformation”.

Schäfer, meanwhile, claimed in her statement on Sunday that the WCED did not know about the allegations of racism in Mthembu’s case: “The educator was employed by the SGB and not the WCED. The department, therefore, was not aware of the processes relating to the teacher’s appointment and subsequent resignation”.

She did, however, say that if it was true that parents made inappropriate comments about Mthembu’s abilities, this was unacceptable.

“The SGB has informed me that they are working on a parent code of conduct which it has committed to make available to parents for comment before the end of the year,” she added.

But Parents for Change have said that if Schäfer did not know about the allegations of racism, then it is unfair of her to conclude that Mthembu was treated fairly.

“Ms Schäfer seems to be sure that no ill-treatment was meted out to Ms Mthembu – this, despite claiming that the WCED had no knowledge of her appointment or of her resignation. Surely Ms Schäfer has access to Ms Mthembu’s legal complaint against the school, a sworn statement. Yet, Ms Schäfer has no criticism of the school’s or the SGB’s behaviour,” the parents said.

Mthembu’s case has drawn both support and criticism from parents at the school, and the wider public following the publication of her story in the  M&G on Friday.

Her resignation came a year after three parents from the school governing body resigned because they were alarmed by how the school, in their view, was blocking transformation.

In a letter explaining their resignation, they wrote: “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?”

Downard told the M&G last week, however, that the school was not aware of such allegations against the principal and that RGJS is committed to transformation.

Parents formed a group called Parents for Change and sent letters to the head of the WCED Brian Schreuder, notifying the department of the allegations of the school’s lack of willingness to transform.

The WCED then met with the parents and the school at the end of 2017 but said it is up to the SGB to pave the way for transformation.

While Schäfer said that her department is committed to transformation, the concerned parents believe otherwise.

“Ms Schäfer’s letter now confirms what we have suspected for a while – that it is up to parents and civil society to cultivate a socially just society, and that the WCED is not a partner in this endeavour,” Parents for Change said. 

MEDIA RELEASE: Response to ANC statement on Rustenberg Girls Junior School by Mail and Guardian on Scribd

PFC Response to WCED Media Statement by Mail and Guardian on Scribd

Rustenburg Girls Junior School by Mail and Guardian on Scribd

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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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