When high school principal Velaphi Mthembu started to get death threats and found himself living in fear of violent skirmishes, he organized a fierce counterattack to protect his students and staff.
Under a zero tolerance policy for criminal behavior, pupils at E.D. Mashabane Secondary School in the poor black township of Evaton near Johannesburg were recruited to expose troublemaking peers.
Undercover police officers were invited to hide in toilet stalls and nab students who had skipped class to puff on marijuana joints, and to arrest pupils who brandished weapons like steel desk legs, broomsticks and knives.
Mthembu even ferried young offenders to the police station in the trunk of his car.
“School enrolment has dropped to 600 from 900 students over the last year. Most of those (dropouts) weren’t learners,” said Mthembu, holding up like a trophy a cloth bag of confiscated marijuana stored in his office filing cabinet.
“They were selling dagga (marijuana) or here to cause trouble. When they saw I was in business with the police, they left school. It’s still a dangerous place but there is more order.”
The alarming level of classroom violence in South Africa mirrors a wider problem in a country with some of the world’s highest rates of violent crime. Many blame the violence on inadequate policing, a wide chasm between rich and poor and the traumatic legacy of apartheid.
Teachers warn that schoolyard crime is contributing to the decline in education standards, also blamed on staff shortages, an AIDS epidemic that has struck down many teachers, overcrowded classrooms and a lack of textbooks.
While separate education based on race has been eliminated in democratic South Africa, the impact of apartheid-era policies still lingers, and the government has been accused of neglecting public schools, especially in poor townships.
Police reports indicate that unruly behavior and sexual violence plague both under-resourced schools in poor areas and more elite private schools in major cities.
The South African Human Rights Commission recently held two days of public hearings into school-based violence and its final report, due early next year, is expected to stoke public debate over the bill, judging by the number of written submissions to the commission.
MORE THAN BULLYING
About 10 per cent of assaults against children in South Africa happen in schools, with the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town reporting 441 incidents between 1991 and 2002 including rape, strangulation and assault with an iron bar.
Countless other cases are believed to go unreported.
“In the grim suburbs and townships, there is little entertainment for children—no sports clubs or playgrounds. We must make the community work together to reduce violence,” said Sebastian van As, of the hospital’s trauma unit.
Increased parental and community involvement in the lives of children and peer mentorship programs could create a more productive learning environment, he said.
Van As is among those who warn stepped-up security could backfire, arguing that pupils who are expelled are at greater risk of delinquency and that lockdowns only heighten anxiety among students.