/ 22 September 2020

Vet all school employees now to stop sexual abuse

Although South Africa’s universities deal with sexual violence though self-regulated policies
Sexual violence in schools is a pervasive issue, affecting both learners and teachers.


From time to time, a news report will be published about comprehensive cover-ups of systemic sexual abuse within a school. The public, the department of basic education, Parliament, and chapter 9 institutions all react with outrage. As we should. Yet, a few months later, a similar story hits the news, and our reaction is the same. Shock. Outrage. And a call to action.

Sexual violence in schools is a pervasive issue, affecting both learners and teachers. With alarmingly high levels of sexual violence across the country — including incidents being carried out by children as young as nine years old — the situation clearly indicates a national crisis requiring urgent action to address the root causes. Without detracting from the reality that educators are certainly not the only perpetrators, and are often the victims themselves, the current policy issues require particular attention. 

In October 2019, the South Africa Council of Educators (SACE) released its 2018-2019 annual report, in which it indicated that cases of sexual abuse in schools have increased by 230% over the past five-year period. Whether it is because of increased incidents, or increased awareness, this statistic is no less shocking. 

Yet still, the state’s response remains predominantly a reactive one — taking a zero-tolerance approach and coming down with hard sanctions against the perpetrators. But let’s be serious — why are so many of these sexual predators employed in our schools in the first place? And if we face the same outraged responses, and increasing numbers year on year, why has our strategy not changed, and why is the necessary impetus for decisive action so starkly absent?

Conducting due diligence

Currently, employers of educators, namely provincial education departments or school governing bodies, are required to check the names of prospective educators against three separate registries relating to children and sexual offences. The first is maintained by the department of justice and constitutional development and contains the names of people convicted of sexual offences. The second is maintained by the department of social development and lists people deemed unsuitable to work with children. The last is maintained by SACE, as the body responsible for registering educators, promoting ethics, and enhancing the status of the profession.

The first problem is that the three registers are not aligned, and nor are the processes of investigation and punishment. As a result, the delayed reporting of incidents results in the fact that many educators simply resign from their posts to avoid investigation and punishment, and take up a position in another school, district or province. And so the cycle continues.

The second problem is the ubiquitous culture of silence that serves to not only subvert access to justice for some of our most vulnerable people — our children — but also encourages the spread of corruption and a collapse of our ethical values. In many instances, we have witnessed the reality that reputation — of schools, as well as of provincial departments themselves — appears to be placed at the forefront of addressing incidents of this nature. 

Whistle-blowing is discouraged. Incidents are addressed internally and confidentially. The scourge of this epidemic is concealed, lest institutions be faced with a publicity issue that will affect their so-called prestige and standing in the community. Perhaps there is no need to involve law enforcement, because, after all, mistakes happen and everyone should be allowed a chance for redemption. But perhaps it is time, now, for us to challenge the prevailing ailment of our society.

Let’s also consider the fact that even if SACE tries to conduct its due diligence and vet teachers before registering them, it still does not have full access to all the abovementioned databases. Let’s assume that SACE completes its due diligence — after a lengthy administrative battle, no doubt. Even so, the department of basic education has conceded that the screening of educators before their employment often does not take place at all, or is only partially carried out. 

It is not only teachers who work at schools

More than this, even when vetting does take place, only educators are vetted in practice. So, technically, if your name appears on any one of these lists, the possibility of you being employed by a school as a cook, gardener, admin clerk, or driver, for example, seems likely. Worried yet?

But these issues are hardly new. In 2006 the South African Human Rights Commission convened an inquiry on violence in schools, which highlighted that sexual violence was one of the most prevalent forms of violence at the time. Subsequent to this, it released investigative reports and hosted dialogues with the view to fast-tracking the implementation of the National Register for Sex Offenders, and to co-ordinate the activities of the various role-players. 

Similarly, other institutions, such as the Commission for Gender Equality, have also attempted to intervene. The practical difficulties aside, this is not a good enough excuse for the delayed rectification of a matter that has been in the public eye, and supposedly high on the political agenda, for more than a decade.

Why have we still not conducted a full review of all peoples employed to perform work at or for schools? Why does SACE still not have access to databases essential to perform its work? Why have policies still not been introduced that go beyond the employment of educators to address all people working in a school environment? And for how long will we continue to relay our public outrage and be provided with assurances that this issue is a priority before concrete steps are taken to address it?

Surely it cannot take this long to address a problem that has been in the spotlight for so many years? Surely the safety and well-being of our learners — and all people in the school environment for that matter — deserve a more urgent response that goes beyond talk to proactively prevent sexual offences from arising and not just exert punishment when they do?

Eden Esterhuizen is research advisor and André Gaum is a commissioner at the South African Human Rights Commission.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.