One of my most shameful memories is of a day in 2002, when my grade 6 Rustenburg Junior class made our isiXhosa teacher cry. I don’t remember what we did, but I know now that I was complicit in something both hideous and intangible. Hanging invisibly in the air of that former Model C classroom was something that made a group of 12-year-old girls feel like they could disobey, undermine, and ridicule their teacher, to the extent that she broke down in front of us. I’m writing about this now because there’s a thread that runs from that moment to the current story of Nozipho Mthembu, a Rustenburg teacher who has recently resigned from her role at the school.

My class started Grade 1 in 1997. It was late in the 1990s, but early in the process of integrating black, Indian and coloured children into Model C schools. Unexamined rainbow nation optimism was at its peak – a bubble loosely surrounding us, that would only truly burst 13 years later with #FeesMustFall. Rustenburg is an all-girls school in Cape Town. Since the Victorian times (in which it was founded) until the 1990s, its mission was to educate and socialise girls, in the context of first colonial and then apartheid life in Cape Town. When I attended the school, its long, proud heritage was strongly emphasised to us. This idea of continuity carried some good things (a commitment to excellence and a robust belief in the equal abilities of boys and girls). However, this legacy also carried historical baggage: a privileging of white, middle-class, specifically English modes of being and learning, which were equated with that excellence and the path a girl might walk to attain it.

Reflecting on that time, it is obvious that I was a child who reaped every possible benefit of white, female, class privilege in that environment. I was able to just get on with the business of learning. At the time I was oblivious to the invisible obstacles and difficulties that climate must have presented to my black classmates and friends, before they could begin the business of learning.A group of former students who have written a public letter supporting Nozipho Mthembu have described this experience:

‘…Rustenburg was not a shining light of inclusiveness. The dominant culture and ethos of the school turned on white Eurocentric values, with little done to acknowledge the rich diversity within our student body. The Black women signed to this letter learnt early on that becoming more “white” in Rustenburg – by adapting how we spoke, what we shared of our home lives, what our parents could afford and how we presented ourselves – was an important tool in fitting in, getting ahead, and in securing recognition for our abilities. At a fundamental level, being a Black student meant being “other”’.

This description resonates with what I remember of that time. ‘Othering’ was taking place at Rustenburg, in ways ranging from subtle to overt. I say this from inside whiteness, both my own and whiteness more generally. Othering works by differentiating between an ‘us’ – insiders, and ‘them’ – outsiders, who are fundamentally different. At Rustenburg, this ‘us’ was a white majority of pupils and teachers, trying to include girls from different backgrounds, without acknowledging or directly acting to undo this logic of ‘us’ and ‘them’ that was exerting  pressure on black children to assimilate. Othering is enduring, in the minds of individuals (like me), and in the fabric of institutions like Rustenburg. Looking back I wish that our school had tried to equip us with the emotional and empathetic tools we needed to apprehend the spectres that were haunting our childhoods, both black and white.

Why does this matter? Nozipho Mthembu has said she was pressured to resign following a review of her performance at RGJS. The school is not releasing details of its specific problems with her professional conduct. Nozipho has argued that it was constructive dismissal – a way of making an employee’s life so difficult that they eventually resign – instead of the employer having to fire them. The Mail & Guardian has reported that both children and parents were involved in undermining Nozipho Mthembu by spreading the idea that she was incompetent.

The letter reads, ‘Independently of Ms Mthembu’s merits as a teacher, there are disturbing racial undertones to this incident.’ No matter how competent or incompetent someone is, they are deserving of fair treatment. They are deserving of a professional environment that respects their integrity, and of a robust defense against discrimination and racism from children and parents, led by their colleagues and managers. To be clear: the School Governing Body and the principal should have defended Nozipho Mthembu against the parents and children undermining her authority, while addressing any legitimate concerns and supporting her to perform in her role.

As a student and in subsequent chapters of my professional life, I have been in several environments where being white and English-speaking is the norm, similar to Rustenburg. While many of the people around me have not come from this specific background, this norm sets the tone of organisational cultures in these institutions. I have witnessed hundreds of tiny, subtle instances of my black classmates and colleagues having to work for space and airtime that my white counterparts (myself included) occupy effortlessly. These are just the instances I have witnessed and noticed – there are undoubtedly thousands more that I miss. Have you (if you are a white reader) paid attention to the rate and ease which white women and men interrupt black women and cut off or overwrite their ideas? Once you start paying attention, the disproportion becomes clear – your professional life is simply easier, in ways that are often invisible to you and me. This dynamic is ever present, because institutional cultures like Rustenburg Girls, like our English language universities, and like many educational and professional environments in South Africa, were built by and for and around white, English speaking people. And they were built against a historical backdrop where blackness – black being and doing and knowing – was negated in every possible way. White women don’t have to work hard to be taken seriously by other white women and institutions, while their black colleagues do. This applies to everything – from our capabilities, to being believed without question.

If I think about how badly we behaved in 2002, and how it made our teacher crumble that day, and how nothing was done about it at the time, it becomes very possible to imagine a similar scenario today. Maybe Nozipho Mthembu’s colleagues couldn’t relate to the reasons why a black teacher in a historically white school may not be taken seriously by students, or understand how this could affect her performance. I spoke to Nozipho today, and she had the following to say: ‘As a minority, you feel like you have to prove yourself, day in and day out. There’s a larger issue here – there’s a situation that’s not healthy, that’s toxic, that’s eating away at qualified, skilled teachers, and that has been disregarded and silenced.’

I suspect that the school handled this poorly precisely because they didn’t want to be seen to be making it about race.

You can’t run from race. White people will never be able to understand this in the way black people do, but race thinking and privilege stick to whiteness just as doggedly as discrimination sticks to blackness. You especially can’t afford to run from race when you’re in charge of a historically and culturally white institution of education. Willful obliviousness and defaulting to defensiveness is not acceptable.

In one way or another, this is a story about race, that nebulous thing that made it seem okay for my class to disregard and humiliate our isiXhosa teacher 15 years ago. Race is at play in ways that are not being acknowledged and addressed at Rustenburg, which is what a concerned group of parents has been trying to say to the governing body. Parents for Change was started because two of the parents on the governing body found that the SGB was not prioritising transformation or taking it seriously, and resigned from their positions on the board. In other words, the SGB is not doing the reflective work of acknowledging that Rustenburg remains for some of ‘us’ – those that conform. It cannot see that its culture is still an othering one. Without that acknowledgement, the SGB is still positioning ‘them’ as the opposition, the outsiders, and perpetuating this binary at all levels, while welcoming black girls and their parents as learners and stakeholders.

Hopefully, this incident will make the school realise that it needs to take this seriously. ‘We urge RGJS and RGHS to publicly answer for the limited transformation achieved to date, to critically assess its working practices and culture, and to put in place measures to fix what is broken,’ the open letter reads. I asked Nadia Meer, who initiated the letter, what she is hoping for. She suggests an independently led inquiry, and added: ‘The emphasis needs to be on this being a collective process where all voices can honestly and respectfully be heard … rather than lip service (that is, a qualified apology), or without the proper commitment to listening without judgement.’ Rustenburg High School has reached out to old girls this week, inviting them to an open conversation about their past experiences. The school has also shared what it is doing to change its institutional culture, including an ongoing programme of ‘dialogue days’ that the Junior School could perhaps adapt and implement.

As parents, teachers, old girls and colleagues, and especially as leaders of organisations: it’s about how we engage with race, and take it deadly seriously when colleagues, students or teachers suggest that their experiences are infected with discrimination that’s not obvious to us all. At a school, it’s about holding it up in the light, and naming it so that children can learn the language to talk about it. This was not the case in the 1990s, but I hope it can be the case today.

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A note on the writer: I attended Rustenburg Girls Junior School from 1997-2003. My father served as chair of the governing body during my years there and for many years after that.

*I also want to thank the people who read this piece before publication, and helped me see my blind spots with thoughtful comments and robust criticism.