An open letter to the governing body of Rustenburg Girls Junior School was signed by 182 former students, and made public on Tuesday 6 November. The letter addresses the discriminatory treatment of Nozipho Mthembu, a Grade 5 teacher who resigned from the school in September of this year, as reported by M&G last week.

Mthembu has argued in the CCMA that she was coerced into resigning. Mthembu has been supported by a group of Rustenburg parents called Parents for Change, who say that the school does not prioritise transformation. The public letter, written and distributed by former student Nadia Meer and a group of women from her year, similarly foregrounds the school’s general lack of inclusiveness and othering of black students and staff, and stands with Nozipho Mthembu. It reads:

‘For the attention of the Rustenburg Girls’ Junior School governing body

We are former pupils of Rustenburg – many of us attended both the junior and high school.

Rustenburg Girls’ Junior School played an integral role in shaping who we are, first as girls of different “races” from diverse religious, cultural and economic backgrounds starting school at the same time that our country transitioned into democracy, and then later on, as black girls increasingly started to take senior positions within the school. We left feeling we were part of a community of which we were proud.

However, 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 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”.

We are astounded by the fact that it took the governing body of Rustenburg Girls’ Junior School (RGJS) 24 years since the end of apartheid to appoint its first black African teacher. We are deeply concerned that an environment at Rustenburg Junior School exists where a child can openly pose the question: “Are black teachers real teachers?” It is extraordinary that this was the first time for many being taught by a black teacher, outside of isiXhosa classes.

The slow pace of transformation is too often lamented without acknowledging the invisible barriers to progression and unconscious bias that black people disproportionately face when compared with white counterparts. Without concerted action to create an inclusive, equal culture, in which people from all backgrounds feel supported to perform at their best, real transformation will remain elusive.

While we acknowledge the apology provided by the SGB, this does not go far enough. 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.

Independently of Ms Nozipho Mthembu’s merits as a teacher, there are disturbing racial undertones to this incident. We applaud the work of the Parents for Change group, and those within the Rustenburg community who challenged the covert and overt racism that remains entrenched in so much of South African society. We applaud those who have stood up for Ms Mthembu despite alleged attempts to undermine her position of authority as a teacher.

Most importantly, we stand by Ms Mthembu, and hope that no future students, teachers or members of the wider Rustenburg community will have to face a similar ordeal.

Sincerely,

A concerned group of Rustenburg Old Girls’

*The full list of signatories is included below the body of this post.

Meer says that the SGB has yet to respond to the letter, sent in an email and published publicly yesterday morning. In terms of the way forward, Meer says: ‘We’d like to understand how RGJS is going to investigate this issue (hopefully with someone independent leading it), what measures they will put in place to address this specific discrimination and the lack of transformation more broadly. RGJS needs to work out the best solution for their students and teachers, but this needs to be a collective process where all voices can honestly and respectfully be heard…rather than lip service (ie a qualified apology) or without the proper commitment to listening without judgment.’ The letter has been shared with Professor Nuraan Davids, who is a member of the Parents for Change Group, and via the group to Mthembu, says Meer.

Mthembu took the school to the CCMA for constructive dismissal, which is ‘a situation in the workplace, which has been created by the employer, and which renders the continuation of the employment relationship intolerable for the employee – to such an extent that the employee as no other option available but to resign.’ They have since reached a settlement.

Mail & Guardian reported that Mthembu had been undermined by pupils, parents and the school’s governing body, quoting a concerned parent who had been asked by a pupil: ‘Are black teachers real teachers?‘. The old girls and Parents for Change are concerned by the school’s environment being hostile to and undermining of black staff and students.

Representatives of the SGB argue that Mthembu is aware of the reasons that her performance came under scrutiny. Mthembu rejects these claims, saying that she felt unsupported by the school and that the specific problems with her teaching were not made clear to her. The MEC for Education has said in a statement that the school’s request for Mthembu to resign was appropriate, and that she was not treated unfairly. Parents for Change, a group of concerned parents advocating for transformation and inclusivity at Rustenberg, have rejected this statement, saying it’s indicative of the the Department’s disinterest in driving meaningful change.

Rustenburg former students who have signed the letter:

rustenburg letter