When I read the story last week about Nozipho Mthembu, the former Grade 5 teacher at Rustenburg Girls’ Junior School who claims she was forced to resign, it brought back memories of how I found myself in a similar situation more than 20 years ago when I began to question my own competence based on concerns raised by my mainly white bosses.
Mthembu, the first black teacher in the Rondebosch school’s 125-year history, reportedly says she has been unfairly discriminated against and asked to resign by the principal or face a disciplinary hearing. She took the school to the CCMA.
I realise that the sacrifices that we made when we became a democracy have not made much of a difference to many people and that those people who felt entitled during apartheid, still feel entitled. Or rather, their offspring feel as entitled as they did.
Racism takes different forms. It does not have to be blatant in the form of someone beating you or swearing at you because of the colour of your skin. Most of the time it is psychological and disguised behind notions of “but we have given you an opportunity” or “we are only trying to make certain that you perform at an optimal level”.
One of the reasons I left Struggle media in 1990 was that I realised that what we called the mainstream media - which was then mainly occupied by whites - would need to find senior black journalists when we became a democracy.
I had run several newsrooms and felt prepared for whatever the industry was prepared to throw at me. I spent the first few years back in mainstream media, where I had started my career before venturing into alternative media, at the Sunday Times. When I was approached to join the Cape Times as deputy editor, with the promise of becoming editor within a year, I had no idea how difficult the transition was going to be before I became editor.
The then Irish Powers That Be at Independent Newspapers identified a few of us as future leaders who should be “fast-tracked”. I refused to be fast-tracked because I believed I had the experience I needed for whatever position they were prepared to offer me.
I had an additional problem. All those who were supposed to be fast-tracked were black, with the exception of two white women. I questioned why no white men were being fast-tracked but it seemed that they did not need it, according to the company’s leadership.
Eventually, and after being told it was a suicidal career move to refuse being fast-tracked, I agreed to be on this special programme.
When I eventually became editor of the Cape Times, I noticed something strange about the media reports about my appointment. All the reports spoke about how “young” I was. I assume that they wanted to invoke all the potential negative connotations associated with being “young”, like “wild”, “immature” or “irresponsible”.
I realised that there were two white editors who had been appointed before me and there was no reference to how young they were. Throughout my term as editor, I felt that there were people in the leadership of the company who did not want me in this position.
The Mthembu case has shown that, more than 20 years later, our battles are still the same.
* Fisher is an independent media professional. Follow him on Twitter: @rylandfisher
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.