South Africa

School Violence: Hangings, fatal stabbings, assaults – the grim toll on SA schools

Since the beginning of 2018, at least 25 incidents of school violence have been reported. Eleven lives — those of two teachers and nine pupils — have been lost over the same period. The statistics — based on an analysis of media reports over the past 12 months — are not official, but they paint a stark picture of schoolyard violence. It’s clear that something needs to change.

In the absence of official statistics, Daily Maverick analysed media reports between January and December 2018 that documented incidents of violence on school property. We found that incidents occurred in all provinces, that Gauteng appears to have more incidents (bear in mind that there are more media based here than, in say, Free State or KwaZulu-Natal) and that there appears to have been an uptick of violent incidents in September.

Among the incidents reported were the January murder of a teacher, allegedly by a Grade 8 pupil from Kuruman, Northern Cape, the death of two teenage girls who were found hanged in a North West school’s dormitory, and several incidents of pupils assaulting teachers, many of which were filmed.

The actual picture is likely to be much worse.

According to the South African Council of Educators (SACE) 2017/ 2018 annual report there were 253 cases of corporal punishment and assault and 87 cases of verbal abuse, victimisation, harassment, defamation and intimidation reported against teachers. And while the report did not provide any details, SACE chairman Lucky Cele raised concern about violence against teachers by learners.

The Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention argues that school violence is influenced by easy access to weapons and high rates of violence in the vicinities in which perpetrators live.

Experience and exposure to violence in any environment at a young age increases the risk of later victimisation, as well as perpetration of violence and other antisocial behaviours. Schools, if considered holistically, are environments where children not only acquire scholastic knowledge but also where they learn to know, to be, to do and to live together,” the centre noted in its report on school violence in South Africa.

Violence in schools impacts negatively on all these processes, creating instead, a place where children learn fear and distrust, where they develop distorted perceptions of identity, self and worth, and where they acquire negative social capital if the violence and safety-related threats are not effectively managed. Thus, school safety is a fundamental precondition for learning rather than being an addition.”

According to the centre’s 2016 National School Violence Study, 15.3% of children at primary and secondary schools have experienced some form of violence while at school, most common threats of violence, assaults and robbery. The experiences of the learners is substantiated by principals, more than four-fifths of whom reported incidents of physical violence perpetrated by learners against fellow learners in their school in the preceding year. The study involved 12,794 learners from primary and secondary schools, 264 school principals and 521 educators from across the country.

What is clear is that school violence can no longer be ignored and must immediately be addressed because it violates both the rights of the child and the educator, says Saferspaces, an online knowledge hub on community safety and prevention of violence.

Saferspaces contends that school violence negatively impacts on the educator’s ability to teach and on the child’s ability to learn.It further has a negative impact on surrounding communities and the country’s development goals, and also has extensive health and economic costs for the country,” it says. Speaking at a schools’ safety summit in Centurion, Pretoria in October 2018, in the aftermath of the fatal stabbing of Daniel Mokolobate, a Zeerust, North West teacher, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga said there was a correlation between high levels of criminality which manifests in schools.

Guns come from communities; the knives [and] the anger come from communities. We, as a society need to sit down and say: ‘What more do we need to do to raise morally upstanding children?’ ” she said.

Motshekga admitted that the department did not have a designated budget for school security

No amount of state-of-the-art security measures will rid our society of this scourge. We need to talk. We need to heal as a nation.

Learners are a mirror to the behaviour they see within their communities and homes. As we know our children’s lives are peppered with violence, either in the homes or on the streets. As a nation, we have simply not dealt with our violent past and the impact of societal violence on our children. The high level of violence in schools reflects a complicated combination of past history and recent stresses on individuals, schools and broader communities,” she said.

Mokolobate was fatally stabbed, allegedly by a 17-year-old pupil, after he had apparently denied the pupil a plate of food a few days before.

In an earlier response to another incident, also involving the death of a teacher, Motshekga said:

We are aware that the area in Kuruman, where the learner is from, faces a number of social challenges, such as a high number child-headed households, the breakdown of the family structure, poverty and substance abuse, among others. This, therefore, makes the role of the community and relevant government entities, in supporting our young people to mitigate these challenges, ever more important.”

Asked what, on a practical level, the Department of Basic Education was doing to end violence in schools, spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga said the school curriculum incorporated material on non-violence, teaching values, respect for oneself and respect for others.

Learners are also searched for weapons, which are confiscated if found. We then notify the parents and initiate disciplinary procedures,” Mhlanga said.

The South African Democratic Teachers Union said that as stakeholders they were very concerned about the escalating incidents of violence in schools. Spokesperson Nomusa Cembi said that as far as the union was concerned, not much was being done by the department to ensure safety.

However, violence research associate Lisa Vetten said unions needed to take a stronger stance against school violence, both perpetrated by and against their members.

In response to the death of two teenage girls who were hanged in May 2018, allegedly by the boyfriend of one of the girls, Motshekga urged “stakeholders to play a role in ensuring that the integrated strategy for school safety is implemented to protect our learners against perpetrators of violence”.

Asked whether intervention measures to curb violence in schools were adequate, Vetten said this did not seem to be the case.

They don’t seem to be doing what they should — perhaps the interventions are themselves inadequate.” DM