South Africa

‘Complaints shoved under the carpet’: Pupils accuse Pietermaritzburg school of racial discrimination

Negro Spiritual Trophy

In February, Smamkele Nyathi, a former pupil at Riverwood College in Pietermaritzburg came forward with allegations of racial injustices that she endured while at the school. 

The school recently changed its name to Riverwood College after merging three schools in Pietermaritzburg – Siembamba Pre-Primary, Gert Maritz Primary and Voortrekker High School.

The claims made by Nyathi, as well as other former and current black students, suggest there were discriminatory practices at Voortrekker High School such as derogatory comments and body shaming.

Responding to the allegations, the school governing body (SGB) at Riverwood College admitted that the school has a “troubled past”, however it said it is working towards correcting and setting aside mistakes from the past.

“Many of these allegations and accusations fly directly in the face of what we were trying to achieve.

“They date back five years before any changes were made and, even then, were not reported through official channels. As this is the first that we have heard of many of these allegations, we are concerned that some may constitute hearsay and cannot be factually substantiated,” said the SGB.

‘Angry black kid’

On 15 February, Nyathi posted allegations on Instagram alleging that she and other students at Riverwood College had been victims of racism at the hands of Voortrekker High School staff.

The young woman said the school disregarded her complaints whenever she brought them forward to the school’s management.

“My animadversion towards this was always taken as attitude and I was viewed as the angry black kid,” she said.

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Nyathi claims it was always the white staff who labelled her as such, making it harder for her to fight the racism she experienced.

“Regardless of the evidence including videos, witnesses or voice memos that were presented to disciplinary staff, it was always swept under the carpet,” she said.

Comments from other former students on the post point to a history of incidents at the school.

“Remember they threatened to suspend us from writing our matric because we spoke against the racism?” wrote one former pupil.

“Shocked it’s still happening that time I left six years ago. Proud of you for speaking up though because it is not only for you but for all of us who could not stand up for ourselves,” said another.

Nyathi also shared screengrabs of messages from students currently at the school. They claim to have been “threatened” to not interact with her social media post.

“At school we have been told if any Riverwood College students are seen liking the post, they will get in trouble. Basically we are being threatened for standing up.”

Riverwood College denies this allegation and said it is the school’s usual social media policy.

“Our school would never try to ‘silence’ any learner. Our social media policy is the same as the one used by many schools in the country and was introduced after staff and learners went through training,” it said.

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‘Negro spiritual’ trophy

One incident at the school was particularly troubling for Nyathi.

She and her friend received a trophy at an award ceremony in October for achieving high marks in Consumer Studies. However, the prize was ruined when she noticed the trophy had the inscription “Negro Spiritual”.

According to The Spirituals, the term refers to “songs created by the Africans who were captured and brought to the United States to be sold into slavery”.

“At the same awards ceremony a lady and I shared the same exact mark but she got acknowledged because of her race and I was sidelined like the ‘negro’ I supposedly am,” alleged Nyathi.

“One of the staff members gave me the trophy and the whole ceremony was rehearsed the day before with the trophies out already, but just not handed to us. So it could not have been a mistake because they always triple check everything for a formal event like this,” she added.

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She further told The Citizen that the school had denied the existence of the trophy when this year’s matriculants confronted them about it.

The SGB said they do not know where the trophy came from as it was donated by an unknown individual.

“Regrettably, nobody checked the inscription and the origins of the trophy.

“The staff who organised the prize giving used an existing and very old trophy as the school did not have the funds required to buy a new piece of silverware for the award,” it added.

Verbal abuse

In addition to Nyathi’s experiences, other students, who asked to remain anonymous, came forward with their own allegations of mistreatment. 

One Grade 8 pupil said she received verbal abuse from an English teacher. It is alleged that the teacher not only called her “stupid and ugly” but also laughed at her distress. 

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Further allegations suggest that one of the teachers would use derogatory terms, including racial slurs, such as the k-word and the n-word, when referring to students.

“She said I won’t amount to anything, or have a car and that I would use public transport all my life. When we reported her about how she treated the Grade 8 learner, nothing was done to reprimand her,” one pupil said.

“She said I was dramatic… this had been carrying on for months and this one time I had just had enough,” the Grade 8 pupil said.

The pupil’s mother allegedly complained to the head of the department who denied any knowledge of the matter.

‘Those marks are not reflective of your ability’

Furthermore, it is alleged that the departure of a history teacher from the school led to the marks of black students being adjusted.

Nyathi claims that after the history teacher’s departure, the marks of black students dropped by 20-25%, under the pretext of “blanketing” everyone. 

However, the SGB said Nyathi’s claims were not true and that the marks for the assignment which Nyathi is referring to were initially not properly moderated.

“Other history teachers on our staff reassessed the marks and felt that they were too high and reported the matter to the headmaster who instructed the Head of Discipline to investigate.

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“He set up a mediation forum where both staff and pupils aired their concerns and/or grievances and then asked the subject advisor to moderate the work. The subject advisor then agreed that the original mark average was too high and supported the downward adjustment suggested by the original moderators,” the SGB told The Citizen.

In a voice recording made by one of the pupils in class, one of the teachers can be heard saying the high marks are not acceptable and they will be sent for moderation again. The pupils were unhappy because they had “been getting As”.

“If you got a 90%, it wasn’t a 90 for me,” said the teacher. When pupils asked why, the teacher responded, “Because I can, it is not good enough and if I decide your essay is not good enough, it is not good enough.

“Those marks are not reflective of what your ability is,” the teacher added.

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Body shaming

The pupils also highlighted the actions of another teacher who allegedly body shamed black students and favoured white girls when it came to uniform regulations. 

According to one of the pupils, the black children were also forced to take off their ancestral bracelets [isisphandla].

“As with any school with an extremely diverse learner profile, dress codes and personal attire are extremely sensitive issues,” the school statement reads.

“Regrettably, there have been instances where learners, including Ms Nyathi, have not adhered to dress codes through wearing revealing clothing without the appropriate undergarments at civvies days or through not changing hairstyles and manicures from school holidays that are deemed inappropriate at school. Implementation of these regulations is in no way restricted to individual learners or cultural groups and applies to all.”

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Nyathi’s mother said her daughter complained to her on many occasions about what she had been going through at school, but the body shaming affected her the most.

“The matter to me was not dealt with in a manner that I was satisfied with. The majority of things were just shoved under the carpet. The incidents left her devastated,” she said.