Top Cape Town school apologises for chasing away first black teacher

03 November 2018 - 10:26 By Sipokazi Fokazi
Former Rustenburg Girls' Junior School teacher Nozipho Mthembu was forced to resign by the governing body
Former Rustenburg Girls' Junior School teacher Nozipho Mthembu was forced to resign by the governing body
Image: Esa Alexander

A teacher says one of Cape Town’s leading schools discriminated against her and constructively dismissed her by coercing her to resign.

Nozipho Mthembu‚ also an ex-pupil at Rustenburg Girls’ Junior‚ was employed by the school governing body as a Grade 5 teacher from January. She told the Commission for Conciliation‚ Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) she felt “powerless and inadequate” after the school made her appear incompetent.

Apart from the isiXhosa teacher‚ Mthembu was the first black class teacher in the Rondebosch school’s 125-year history.

She said she was singled out for a “mentorship” programme that left her more “traumatised than supported”‚ and when she was given an ultimatum to resign in September the school simply told parents she had left for personal reasons.

Mthembu said the truth was that she quit because the school made her job “intolerable and treated me in a discriminatory manner”.

School governor Natalie Maimane‚ the wife of DA leader Mmusi Maimane‚ did not respond to TimesLIVE e-mails‚ text messages and phone calls about social media posts alleging she played a role in Mthembu’s departure.

Mthembu said she was given an ultimatum by principal Di Berry and governing body chairman Gavin Downard to resign or face disciplinary action that would “ruin her reputation”.

They told her some parents “questioned my competency and were unhappy that I was teaching their children. One parent was apparently so unhappy that she decided to take her daughter out of my class to be home-schooled and only to return to the school next year‚” Mthembu said.

During her first meeting with parents‚ the 26-year-old University of Cape Town graduate said she was questioned about where she had qualified and whether she could show proof of her qualifications.

Following a CCMA process this week the governing body apologised to Mthembu‚ saying that it is sorry she “did not experience these measures [mentorship] as supportive”.

Its letter to Mthembu said: “As an SGB we have recognised that the school’s institutional culture does not fully reflect the diversity of South Africa and we have publicly committed to changing this. It is a priority.

“We are dedicated to ensuring that our school is accessible‚ welcoming to and supportive of a diversity of learners‚ staff and parents.”

A group calling themselves Parents for Change are fuming at the school’s treatment of Mthembu‚ saying it perpetuated racial divisions. The group also expressed relief at the early retirement of Berry‚ whom they accused of resisting racial inclusivity.

One of the parents is Nuraan Davids‚ associate professor of philosophy and education at Stellenbosch University‚ whose children have been at the school for 15 years.

She said Mthembu’s story was an example of how easily harm was dispensed. Instead of shifting blame to parents‚ she said‚ the school should have asked itself how it had failed the teacher.

“Everything is done to serve a select few‚ and that can’t be acceptable in 2018‚” said Davids‚ adding that she was particularly concerned by the school’s “twisting of the truth” after Mthembu’s resignation.

Davids also alleged that the school misled the Western Cape Education Department by reporting progress in “diversity and transformation” by employing its first black African teacher — when in fact she had already resigned. In a statement to TimesLIVE‚ the governing body said it was “reviewing all policies at the school through the sense of inclusivity‚ diversity and transformation‚ and identifying barriers to transformation”.

A parent who did not want to named‚ for fear of victimisation‚ said Mthembu’s treatment showed double standards. “For a school that prides itself on maintaining school traditions they couldn’t even keep human resource traditions‚ and treated their first black teacher with so much indignity.

“If Ms Mthembu was incompetent why not fire her? Why threaten her [to make her] to resign? Start doing the right thing. Stop blaming Nozipho and parents‚ and start behaving properly as management and governors.”

Mthembu acknowledged the apology but she said she should not have had to approach third parties such as the CCMA and lawyers before the school admitted its errors.

“I hope no teacher ever goes through what I went through. My experience and the ‘mentorship’ that I got at the school left me traumatised and broken than supported‚” she said.

“The discrimination was subtle‚ yet so painful. I was the only teacher who had to make additional lesson plans for everything that I taught. I was the only teacher to whom a ‘mentor’ could come any time of the day and teach my class on my behalf.”

The Western Cape Education Dept said it could not comment on the claim of constructive dismissal as it was not Mthembu’s employer‚ but said it was “aware of allegations of racism at the school”.

Spokeswoman Bronagh Hammond said: “The department has engaged extensively with the [governing body]‚ concerned parents‚ as well as the staff. The school has committed itself to ensure that the school transforms itself into one that embraces diversity.”