More than half of the pupils who were surveyed in a new study by Unisa on school violence say they have been victims of abuse — and mostly in their own classrooms.
A high level of teacher absenteeism is one of the main factors that contributes to the scenarios reminiscent of battlefields that scores of pupils face every day at school, and corporal punishment remains routine in the majority of schools in the country, despite being banned in post-apartheid education policy.
Titled The Dynamics of Violence in Schools in South Africa, the study considers bullying, assault, sexual harassment and theft as acts of violence (See "Children fight instead of play", below). About 55% of pupils who were surveyed report that they have experienced violence in one or more of these forms.
Most bullying and fighting occur in the classroom when a teacher is not there, Vusi Mncube, a Unisa professor specialising in international management and policy in education and co-leader of the study, told the Mail & Guardian.
Fifteen Unisa researchers conducted the study in 2011 and 2012 across six provinces, incorporating written responses from more than 1 200 grade nine pupils and interviewing 144 pupils, teachers, principals and school governing body members. The data includes responses from the victims as well as the perpetrators of violence.
When teachers aren't looking
"A lot of violence that we witnessed and that was reported to us occurred in classrooms when teachers were not there," Mncube said.
He also said that corporal punishment was widespread. "In many provinces, mainly rural and township schoolteachers are not afraid of telling you they are still using it."
Of the pupils surveyed, 31% said they had experienced corporal punishment, 19% had endured bullying and 4% had been abused sexually. And in some schools such abuse is "rife", the study says.
When asked about teacher absenteeism, Mncube said: "A teacher may be present at school, but instead of going to the classroom he will remain in the staff room. He is absent from class, not necessarily from the school register."
This is why he doubts that Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga's plan to introduce a computerised fingerprint clocking-in system for teachers will help.
"It can be there, but it is not going to improve the situation. A teacher can still just stay in the staff room," Mncube said.
In the classroom
A teacher in KwaZulu-Natal who is quoted in the report corroborates this: "A couple of cases [of violence take place] in the toilets. But … in most cases when you hear of kids fighting, [there is a] more than 90% chance that there was no teacher in that class. So it's mainly [happening] in the classroom."
A pupil in Mpumalanga told the researchers: "I feel very scared when there is no teacher in class."
And one in Limpopo said that her "school is full of violence". Other pupils "bully us. They like to bully us. Like I'm a person who has a small heart and I don't like to be teased. So some guy knows that I have a small heart, he likes to tease me in class — everywhere I go he likes to tease me, you know, and make me feel small like I don't belong here."
A pupil in the North West has also found boys to be problematic: "Many boys are doing it [sexually harassing] to girls — they try to touch our bums, but when you're telling them to stop they say they are going to kill us or something."
Teachers, especially women, are also often victims of abuse, the study found. "[One form of violence is] disturbing the classroom, [and] especially lady teachers are victims," a KwaZulu-Natal teacher of life orientation told the researchers.
"Even girls as well, they are very rude … making it very difficult for teachers to manage the class. But with us male teachers they rarely do that," he said.
Though "the majority of pupils indicated that there's violence in their schools", Mncube said there was a somewhat positive side to the issue: "There are a number of schools in Gauteng, the North West and KwaZulu-Natal that reported no violence in their schools."
However, in "perhaps a majority" of the country's schools, "violence is a serious problem". The study puts school management and governance at the centre of its diagnosis.
"The more disorganised, unreliable and inconsistent the school, the more chance of violence [there is] because pupils feel that in a laissez-faire atmosphere anything goes and they too can do as they please. Thus, the consistent reports of teacher absenteeism during the interviews for this study are of serious concern."
Themba Ndlovu, spokesperson for the South African Council of Educators, expressed concern about the study's finding of an "increase in the number of reported corporal punishment cases".
"We discourage any use of violence in schools both by the teachers and pupils," he said. "As a nation, we can't perpetuate the notion that [violence is the solution] to resolving problems."
Before they can teach in state schools, all teachers have to be
registered with the council, whose responsibilities include holding disciplinary cases involving teachers accused of misconduct.
"Teachers being absent from class have implications for [the conduct of] the pupils," Ndlovu said. "Most of the time violence erupts among the pupils."