Sitting at her dining room table, she bows her head and wipes away her tears with the back of her hand. For a few seconds, the usually eloquent mother struggles to talk. The tears flow unrelentingly.
“I thought I was fine but I realise that it is still difficult talking about it,” she finally says.
Nozintombi, who prefers that she and her daughter use pseudonyms, is angry. She feels let down and constantly worries about the safety of her daughter Zintle when she is out of her sight.
Zintle is supposed to be safe at school, but it’s during school hours that Nozintombi is most fearful.
She says her 11-year-old is a victim of sexual harassment at the hands of a man who is a worker at the school.
“Just today I was thinking, ‘What if he kills her?’ ”
Early in June, on a Friday, Zintle and a friend went to the girls’ toilets. She had ink on her hands and needed to wash them.
“The guy called out to check if there were still kids in the bathroom,” Nozintombi said. “He locks up at the school and also cleans toilets.”
The girls were there but Zintle’s friend then left.
“Zintle remained behind, washing her hands. He walked in and grabbed her from behind and squeezed her left boob,” said Nozintombi. “She screamed twice for her friend. The first time the man did not let go of her and the second time she screamed louder and he let go of her.”
The alleged incident happened at Rynfield Primary School in Benoni, where Zintle is a grade 5 pupil.
The girl did not say anything while she was being driven home. Only when they got there did she tell her mother about the alleged incident.
“It hit me hard and the whole night I did not sleep well as I was trying to make sense of what had happened,” Nozintombi said.
The next day the family went to open a case of sexual harassment at the Benoni police station, where more trauma followed.
“The police who helped open the case said, ‘but her breasts are so small’,” said Nozintombi. “What does that mean? Were they saying that my daughter manufactured the story? Why would she lie about something like this?”
When the Mail & Guardian asked the police about the progress of the case, it appeared they had muddled the facts. Gauteng police spokesperson Kay Makhubela said the details of the case referred to a boy allegedly having touched a girl’s breasts.
When the M&G said the alleged assailant was a man who worked at the school, Makhubela said: “That’s not what we have in front of us. We have a case of two learners. The case is still under investigation and no suspect has been arrested.”
Nozintombi said this did not tally with the statement her daughter gave the police. “I cannot believe this. Something is really fishy here. We saw the statement and read the statement.”
She was infuriated by the way the school handled the matter after the case was reported to the police.
“I realised that the principal [Lynette Cuthbertson] does not believe us. She told us the man had been with the school for almost 10 years and it was his first incident – and that he is a fantastic employee and we must also remember that such cases could cause him to lose his job,” said Nozintombi.
But it was allegedly not the case. Nozintombi said she had been told about another incident of sexual assault carried out by the same person.
“I said to her [Cuthbertson], ‘There is another case. Why are you saying this is the first incident?’ And then she said, ‘With that case there were no witnesses.’ Just like in my daughter’s case, nobody saw the man touching the children.”
Cuthbertson did not respond to detailed questions sent to her, saying the district office was best placed to do so because she had sent them details of the case.
Nozintombi sent an email to the department of basic education’s Ekurhuleni North district. She wrote: “My child was forced to be in the same space as the person who violated her. She was traumatised throughout her exams, often crying after school. During school hours she would ask her friends to look out for [the man] so that she doesn’t cross paths with him.”
She added that Zintle had not been given trauma counselling and that her daughter’s marks had dropped; she was no longer among the best-performing pupils.
“Mrs Cuthbertson made her write a statement without me being present, despite me sending a written note and personally speaking to her about this. I explained that I’m 15 minutes away from school and available any time for such. This was another way of traumatising the minor,” she wrote.
A spokesperson for the Gauteng education department, Steve Mabona, said an investigation by the department found no evidence to support the allegation.
“Though the complainant alleged that other learners were also sexually assaulted, she subsequently failed to submit names of other victims for necessary intervention,” he said. “The preliminary investigation did not provide any grounds for a precautionary suspension, hence the said employee was not placed on such.”
Nozintombi said she believed that if there was no satisfactory resolution the man would continue to harass pupils “because there are no witnesses”.
She said her child had not received the support she deserved and her case had not been treated with the required urgency.
“I asked my daughter if she wants to move to another school, and she feels that it is that man who violated her and he is the one who needs to go,” Nozintombi said.
Vincentia Dlamini-Ngobese, of Women and Men Against Child Abuse, said the attitude displayed by the school mirrors how society deals with victims of sexual assault.
“Society is less sympathetic to victims of sexual assault. There is this myth that victims of sexual assault suffer less emotional trauma than those of rape, and that is a problem because victims of sexual assault, even though they may not suffer physical trauma, they suffer a lot of emotional trauma,” she said.
“He has started with the breasts and what the school is saying is that it is only going to act when the child is pregnant. It is disgusting.”
She believes the man is a paedophile who needs to be removed from an environment involving children.
“As an organisation, we are going to be writing to the school and request that this man must go. We need to ensure that children are safe,” she said.
Nozintombi said other parents had told her that the man has made advances on other girls. “One parent told me that he asked for her daughter’s number and, when she said she did not have a phone, he said he would buy it for her.”
Parents contacted by the M&G for comment said they were not comfortable speaking out, but one mother said other parents were aware that the man had asked girls at the school for their cellphone numbers.
She was more worried about the fact that the man has access to the girls’ toilets. “It makes me uncomfortable that this man with a questionable character is cleaning girls toilets, small children at that. It’s scary. Are there no women who can clean the girls’ toilets at the school? It’s wrong,” she said.
The department of basic education’s handbook for pupils on how to prevent sexual abuse in schools, titled Speak Out: Youth Report Sexual Abuse, stresses that teachers must ensure that pupils are safe at all times when they are at school.