/ 9 November 2023

The unspoken burden of sexual orientation in schools

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In 1996, South Africa banned discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, 27 years later, South Africans continue to find themselves being made to feel that they do not belong.  

On 23 October, a grade six learner at Khehlekile Primary School, Sibusiso Mbatha committed suicide after allegedly facing homophobic discrimination from a teacher at his school. According to a recent eNCA interview, the bullying had been going on since the second term of this year. When eNCA interviewed Sibusios’s mom, she said the teacher admitted to making discriminatory and dehumanising remarks.  

The heartbreaking part about this incident is that it is not the first, nor will it be the last, to happen. What has been disappointing is twofold: the school’s failure to take accountability and the Gauteng department of education’s response. 

The school representatives have focused on shifting the blame onto Sibusiso’s family for their failure to be persistent in getting the school to act on this matter. This reveals that Sibusiso’s family had already made previous attempts for the school to give the matter attention. Secondly, the department of education spokesperson (Steve Mabona) said it was waiting for an investigation to be conducted and that it could not yet classify the kind of bullying the case falls under — despite the existence of legislation against bullying and discrimination.  

Moreover, the code of professional ethics in the South African Council of Educators (SACE) states that an educator is to:  

• Respect the dignity, beliefs and constitutional rights of learners 

• Avoid any form of humiliation, refrain from any form of abuse (physical or psychological)  

• Use appropriate language and behaviour in his/her interaction with learners, and act in such a way as to elicit respect from the learners  

The teacher allegedly telling Sibusiso to “leave his gayism out of the school premises” is misconduct and shows blatant disregard for the learner’s rights.

Before becoming a teacher, it is compulsory to register with SACE, which is also required  even before official employment. It is frightening that many similar incidents have taken place over the years where some teachers — who have sworn adherence to the code of professional ethics — discriminate against learners, bully and mock pupils based on their sexuality.  

A child’s mental health and behavioural changes may be overlooked either at school or at home. This can result in a child feeling isolated to the point where suicide seems like the best way to escape the humiliation and bullying. 

Schools must be able to create a safe learning environment, which includes a safe space for learners to be brave enough to embrace who they are and to express themselves.  

It is a painful and frustrating reality to know that despite South Africa being known as a progressive country when it comes to LGBTQI rights and its South African Children’s Act 38 of 2005 which serves as a law meant to protect children from bullying, the bullying and discriminatory culture continues to grow.  

Although on 21 August, the department of basic education stated that it plans to enforce anti-bullying laws in South African schools, bullying has been an ongoing issue in and outside the school premises. It is high time that the department stops waiting for more child suicides for bullying to be taken seriously. 

Sibusiso Mbatha’s case should not be taken lightly, it is a wake-up call to every educator.  

When applying a different lens to this incident, it is clear that multiple township public schools like Khehlekile Primary School do not have the necessary resources to provide control measures over bullying and provide psychological support such as student counselling — which the majority of former Model-C schools have. 

It would make sense for the department of education to look into this gap. This incident reveals a gap in the training of our teachers in the public school system and calls for crisis interventions for any form of bullying that ensures that teachers are equipped with non-discriminatory approaches that ensure that all learners are treated with respect. 

Sound communication channels must be created between learners, the school and parents to tackle bullying, and for the department to ensure that it prioritises the creation, execution and evaluation of policies within the school system. 

It is time for our society to do away with the normalised culture of bullying and discrimination. The first step could be the criminalisation of bullying for teachers — and even suspension of those who are part of a bullying culture as our educators are meant to be the backbone of the society to guide and teach children.  

This is not just a case of bullying, but a form of gender-based violence. GBV refers to a serious violation of human rights and is life-threatening, therefore victims of GBV require protection, according to the UN High Commissioner’s article on Gender-Based Violence. The outcome of such serious violations are psychological and/or physical. One can only hope that justice will be served for Sibusiso and that teachers will learn from this.  

Oyisa Sondlo is a PhD sociology candidate and an Intern at Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES).