/ 23 April 2021

‘I was bullied and I still carry the scars’

Graphic: John McCann
(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

I was bullied in primary school. 

I moved to Gauteng from the Eastern Cape to live with my grandparents, who were migrant workers, and started a new school in White City Jabavu, Soweto. 

We sat in groups of six in class and I was placed with the popular kids. 

The first six months at that school, in the standard 5 (grade 7) class and in that group I sat with, was hell on earth. I went home crying every day and my grandmother would comfort me and tell me that things would be better. But when I returned to school the next day I would go through the same torture and humiliation. 

There was one particular girl who was relentless in making my school days unpleasant. I can still see her face. Nombulelo was short. She had a hoarse voice and big ears. My tormentor. 

If a pen or anything went missing from our desk she would blame it on me. 

She would shout to the rest of the group members that “Ithathwe yile Xhosa”. That is how she used to refer to me. I was not Bongekile to her. I was iXhosa. 

She used to mock my isiXhosa accent. During group work she made fun of the fact that I did not understand English. All of this was fun to her and she would gossip about me with the rest of her friends, who were part of the group, about how stupid I was. 

I sat there and listened when this girl said nasty things about me to her friends in Sesotho. She thought I could not hear what she was saying but I could because I stayed in Molapo, an area in Soweto where mostly Sotho speakers stayed. 

I was scared of responding to her because I feared her. All of this torment, humiliation and bullying by Nombulelo happened for six months. I did not know who to turn to. I suffered in silence. 

It was only in the third quarter that I found my voice and stood up to Nombulelo. And the thing that gave me the courage to do that was that I had performed extremely well in the June exams. I came third in the entire class. That boosted my confidence. My teachers had recognised my strong academic ability and as such entrusted me to lead the group in activities. 

So it became difficult for Nombulelo to bully me because she also had to ask for help from me with her school work. 

When I moved to standard 6 (grade 8) the next year. I met other bullies. One of them was Kutloano. Strangely I had a crush on my bully. I have big cheeks and Kutloano found this funny. 

Before going out at break time he would shout across his desk that I should buy him a kota and keep it in my cheeks and he would get it when he came back. To him, my cheeks were big enough to keep a kota. I can still see how he and his friends would laugh their way out of the class after saying this to me. It hurt. 

I would go back home and tell my grandmother about the mean boy. UmaBhayi, my grandmother, would comfort me and tell me that “akukho nzwane enganesphako”, which loosely translated means that no one is born perfect. And that I should pay no attention to Kutloano. 

I was 13 when Kutloano and his friends used to bully me. Years after I had left primary school and right up until university I was very conscious of my chubby cheeks and wished they were not so big. Kutloano made me believe that there was something wrong with my cheeks.

I had self-esteem issues throughout my school years because of how I was belittled by Nombulelo. 

It has been two decades since I left primary school and I still carry the scars that my bullies inflicted on me all those years ago. 

I was triggered last week when I saw the video of Lufuno Mavhunga being hit and humiliated by her bully in full view of other learners. Lufuno died by suicide after the bullying incident. 

I know how it is like being humiliated in front of peers. I know what it feels like to be made to feel worthless. I know what it feels like to be alone and that nobody understands your pain. I know it all because I experienced it. 

May Lufuno’s soul rest in peace.