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Story Prompts Teacher’s Dismissal

June 23, 1999

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ When a white teacher assigned his racially integrated class a story containing a derogatory term for blacks, it cost him his job _ even though the work’s message was that regardless of skin color, everyone is the same underneath.

Chris Roos’ dismissal Wednesday underscores that five years after apartheid’s demise, race remains a flashpoint in South Africa’s schools.

Black parents were furious that Roos had assigned ``Unto Dust,″ a decades-old book containing the word ``kaffir,″ a racial slur in South Africa. Never mind that the story by Herman Charles Bosman explored the then-heretical theme that blacks and whites are equal.

About 100 angry parents protested Monday at the Cullinan Combined School in the capital, Pretoria.

Roos said he assigned the story to his sixth-graders ``to explain to the children the issues of racism and that we are all equal.″

``But I’m the pig of the school now,″ he said in an interview. ``The headmaster told me to leave and said I’m not capable of teaching students.″

An Education Department spokesman _ who is black _ believes Roos’ intentions were good, but that wounds from white rule remain too fresh for him to have addressed racial issues in that way.

``The story has a very powerful anti-racist message. I am convinced the teacher’s intentions were noble,″ said Aubrey Matshiqi, spokesman for the provincial Education Department. ``But maybe the timing is a bit incorrect. Our schools are still trying to grapple with race issues.″

The parents maintained Roos showed a lack of sensitivity in assigning the story and that some of their children were upset by it.

``If we’re living in a new South Africa, it’s stupid to come up with such assignments,″ said one father, who refused to give his name for fear of retaliation.

The dispute exposes racial sensitivity that goes deeper than the use of a hated word. A government commission recently denounced the ``virtual apartheid″ that persists in schools, with the separation of white and black residential areas hampering true equality in education. School playgrounds have become ``battlefields″ between black and white students, the report said.

In ``Unto Dust,″ Bosman, who died in 1951, describes a 19th century skirmish between white settlers and native South Africans. A settler, Hans Welman, is speared to death by a black man, who in turn is shot dead by another settler. Months later, a burial party comes to retrieve Welman’s remains, but the weather and animals have scattered and mixed the bones of the two men.

``We could not tell which was the white man and which the kaffir,″ a character says. ``No matter what the difference in the color of their skin had been, it was impossible to say that the kaffir’s bones were less white than Hans Welman’s.″

School headmaster Joe Coetzee said he has apologized to many of the parents over the ``unfortunate″ incident.

Roos, meanwhile, said he plans to go to the teachers’ union and Education Department to try to get his job back.

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