Dungeons and sjamboks in school's reign of terror

Pupils at an exclusive school in Nelspruit are being subjected to cruel punishment,

writes Justin Arenstein

Mpumalanga politicians took time off from their professional duties late last month to voice their outrage at the alleged public flogging and systematic abuse of children attending an exclusive high school in Nelspruit, the provincial capital.

The toyi-toying pupils included girls with sjambok welts on their arms and chests, and traumatised children who told shocked officials how they had been sentenced to solitary confinement in a faeces-filled “dungeon” for even minor infringements.

Cefups Academy was forced to close after roughly 600 pupils revolted against daily beatings and marched on the provincial legislature to show the welts and raw wounds on their backs, legs and buttocks.

The graphic evidence that corporal punishment is still being administered illegally, in contravention of the SA Schools Act, has forced Mpumalanga education MEC Craig Padayachee to order urgent police investigations and a separate judicial commission to probe the wider human rights abuses.

Outraged legislature members demanded more, however, insisting that Cefups president Simon Mkhatshwa be criminally charged and that the school be probed for tax evasion and unfair labour practices, among others.

Two MECs and outspoken Mpumalanga politician Jackson Mthembu told the legislature how their own children had been publicly sjambokked at the academy. “It’s shocking. We knew our children had been beaten, but I had no idea the floggings were so severe or so common. The tensions at the school have to be addressed, or we will see pupils die or teachers murdered. It is desperate,” said Mthembu.

“The paradox is that the school boasts a 97% exam pass rate, but it is obviously the result of a reign of terror that will explode in American-style violence unless something is done.”

Padayachee pledged to report back to Mthembu and the legislature within 60 days and said the proposed commission would also probe claims that pupils were stripped naked in public and forced to live in unsanitary conditions in under-equipped dormitories.

Mkhatshwa is no stranger to controversy. He was sentenced to three months in jail or a R1000 fine in 1999 after being convicted for publicly sjambokking the academy’s English teacher, Lindie Maphanga. He also appeared in court in 1997 after allegedly squeezing and twisting a 19-year-old pupil’s testicles in front of the school assembly because the youth had been caught sleeping in class. The assault charges were dismissed because witnesses were too scared to testify against Mkhatshwa.

Xolani Mkhwanazi, a grade 9 pupil who spoke to the media about the alleged abuse, was allegedly beaten for a second time last month for allegedly bringing the school into disrepute.

Mkhwanazi was one of more than 20 pupils who showed education officials welts and scabs from sjambok beatings on their buttocks, backs and legs.

A 12-year-old pupil, who was too scared to be named, told officials that pupils were terrified of being locked up in solitary confinement for up to two days at a time in “Simbaland” - a small, dank room next to the dormitory’s leaking toilets. Urine- and faeces-tainted water seeps into the room, making it almost impossible to breathe, the boy said, adding that “simba” is the SiSwati and isiZulu word for faeces.

Provincial Congress of SA Students representative Luthando Shongwe said the organisation was worried about the “dangerously unsanitary conditions” at the school, where hundreds of pupils are forced to wash with cold water in the open because of inadequate bathroom facilities. Shongwe also said Cefups had failed to provide any of the advanced science or computer facilities promised in the school prospectus.

The R18 600-a-year high school caters to pupils from Swaziland, Gauteng and surrounding areas, and boasts a high exam pass rate. It claims to offer pupils one-on-one tuition in a “peaceful rural setting”.

- African Eye News Service

- The Teacher/M&G Media, Johannesburg, June 2001.