SA’s classrooms of war

The South African Democratic Teachers Union has said teachers no longer feel safe at school due to ill-disciplined pupils,Picture: AFP

“I HAVE been pulled by my braids, sworn at, called a b***h, had water thrown in my face and had my tyres slashed for trying to discipline pupils.”

This is how a Johannesburg teacher with 13 years of teaching experience (identity withheld) described her experiences in the classroom. For this teacher and many others, entering a classroom in South Africa is akin to walking into a war zone where they risk their lives daily to teach ungovernable pupils.

The New Age spoke to three teachers from Gauteng who all said they were stuck between a rock and a hard place. “If you retaliate you face dismissal, if you don’t defend yourself they could kill you.”

*Thulisile (not her real name), a Grade 7 teacher at a Johannesburg school has described teaching as “a never-ending traumatic experience”. “The same parents that rush to school when their child so much as complain about a teacher, are missing in action when you request them to come through because their child has committed an offence,” she said. Thulisile said even principals are running out of ideas on how to deal with such pupils.

“I feel like my hands have been tied behind my back and then sent into a situation where I cannot defend myself. I mean my child would not like to see her mother being pulled by her hair. When is enough, enough.” she said. She said the law was totally against teachers. Another teacher, *Matebogo, who has been a teacher for 13 years, said not even calling the police to the school has worked in some cases.

“I am a teacher and I feel like I’m being forced to become a social worker, a psychologist and a referee all in one. We deal with children from all sorts of backgrounds, some are on drugs, some are emotionally damaged and sometimes I have to stop a lesson to try to intervene because a situation is getting out of hand,” she said.

*Molefi, who has been teaching for more than 20 years, feels that pupils have more rights than teachers and there is nothing teachers can do. “A child can just stand up and hit you and you cannot defend yourself or do anything because they have more rights than you. “They bring knives, illegal guns to school, drugs and all sorts of nonsense and there is no telling how dangerous a situation you are being put into as a teacher.”

Molefi said teaching had become dangerous and as a result he felt that they should be given “danger pay”. In Gauteng alone 431 pupils were recommended for expulsion in the 2016- 17 financial year for various offences including violence, drug dealing and drug abuse. In the Northern Cape, a disciplinary hearing against a Grade 11 pupil from a Bothitong High School in Kuruman is expected to start today.

The pupil allegedly hit a school teacher with a textbook during class last week following an argument and later allegedly assaulted the principal who tried to intervene. Provincial department of education spokesperson Geoffrey van der Merwe said: “The department will not tolerate any lawlessness in our schools. This has the potential of putting the lives of ordinary teachers and pupils at risk.”

In another incident in Kuruman, a foreign national teacher was stabbed to death in Manyeding village by a Grade 8 pupil at Bosele Primary School after accusing the teacher of failing him. The 15-year-old pupil allegedly went to the teacher’s home in the early hours of a Saturday morning and started smashing windows with stones. The teacher, from Zimbabwe, went out to investigate what could be the problem and that is when he was allegedly attacked by the boy.

Van der Merwe said teachers and pupils at the school had received counselling and it was only now that the situation at the school had been brought to normality. Gauteng department of education spokesperson Steve Mabona said if a pupil is expelled permanently from a school, they are placed at another school and instructed to attend diversion programmes.

In KwaZulu-Natal last year, there were at least three incidents of pupilteacher violence reported and investigated by the department of education. The latest, in December 2017, involved a group of about 20 Grade 11 pupils from a high school in Ulundi cornered teachers in the staff room demanding to be promoted to matric. The teachers had to be rescued by the police.

In another incident in Bergville, two teachers were left seriously injured after being stabbed by a pupil. However, KZN education spokesperson Kwazi Mthethwa said the incidents of pupil-teacher violence was not as rife in many other parts of the country. He attributed this to the department’s proactive stance on the issue. “We try to instil values and morals in our pupils to reduce such incidents. We can’t say it’s not happening but it’s not that prevalent,” Mthethwa said.

He said it was important for teachers who were under threat at their schools to report to the authorities. “They must report to us so we can take the matter forward,” he said. In North West, five teachers were assaulted in front of pupils at Rearabilwe Secondary School in Ntsoeletsoku village near Zeerust in an incident strongly condemned by education authorities.

This was after two Grade 10 pupils aged 18 and 21 were ordered to bring their parents to school after they allegedly played loud music from their cellphones in the middle of a lesson.

Education and sport development spokesperson Elias Malindi said only one of the two pupils came with his mother and went through a disciplinary process organised by the school. He was suspended for seven days and barred from setting foot in the school.

“On March 9, the two boys decided to attend the assembly irrespective of the suspension levelled against one of the pupils. The boys disrupted the assembly in the morning and attacked the five teachers (four males and one female) specifically those who took part in the disciplinary proceedings. Grade 12 pupils intervened and managed to defuse the altercation. The teachers sustained minor injuries and teaching and learning could not take place on that day,” Malindi said.

South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) provincial secretary Els Themba said their members no longer felt safe at school and urged authorities to nip the problem of ill-discipline in the bud. Cases of assault have been opened against the two boys.

The Western Cape Education D department of education has also admitted to facing incidents of violence in schools, mostly related to gangsterism. Some of the schools that have been on the radar for bullying and stabbing incidents included De Kuilen High School (Kuils River), Stellenberg High School, Atlantis Secondary School, South Peninsula High School, Scottsdene High School and Leiden Avenue Primary. Last week a 15-year-old Mitchells Plain pupil was stabbed multiple times outside the school gates while last month, three pupils in grades 11 and 12 were attacked by a matric pupil in an alleged gang-related incident during the first break recess at Atlantis Secondary School.

However, in the Free State, education MEC Tate Makgoe said no recent cases where pupils attacked teachers had been reported but appealed to parents to instil discipline at home. Sadtu Free State provincial secretary Bricks Moloi said they encouraged teachers not to be confrontational but be approachable when they were attacked by the pupils.

He said teachers should report these incidents in order for disciplinary measures to be taken. “Teachers are under many challenges and in the province, there are no pending cases except the one of a pupil who was expelled from the school in Ficksburg last year after he attacked a teacher,” Moloi said.

He said that since there was no corporal punishment, there must be heavy punishment for pupils who attacked teachers or who were ill-disciplined.


* Not their real names