South Africa

Knife’s edge: How dangerous are South Africa’s schools?

By Marelise Van Der Merwe 16 July 2015

On Thursday, another young man was found guilty of murder following a gang-related shooting in a Cape Town school. South Africa’s school shootings don’t attract the same press their international cousins do, so we don’t have the same understanding of the problem. Just how violent are our schools? How much of the violence is gang-related? And can anything be done about it? By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

Marelise Van Der Merwe

On Thursday, 21-year-old Jevon Snyman was found guilty by the Western Cape High Court of the 2013 murder of matric teenager Glenrico Martin. Snyman, then a teenager, was found to have acted with common purpose with Wilston Stoffels, currently serving a 24-year-sentence for the murder.

Stoffels and Snyman went to Spes Bona secondary school in Athlone, the court found, with the intention of killing Martin. Martin’s family spoke of how tough two years of court postponements were. According to them, their son had not been a gangster, but was friends with gangsters, because they lived in Manenberg – heavily under gang control. According to the judge, however, Martin had previously fired a shot at the G-Unit gang – of which Snyman is a member – and was killed in a revenge attack. He was shot in the head as he exited a taxi.

The shooting was one of many incidents of school violence in the Western Cape. Previously 12,000 learners have been unable to go to school owing to gang violence in the province; Daily Maverick has reported that teenagers couldn’t go to soccer practice for the same reason. Nationally, learners face their share of shootings, stabbings and other horrors too.

The South African Police Service failed to respond to Daily Maverick’s enquiries regarding crime and violence in schools, but the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention carried out an extensive National School Violence Study in 2008 and updated it in 2012. Lezanne Leoschut writes in the organisation’s research bulletin in 2013 that violence in South African schools has increased since the initial study, and that one in five secondary school learners had experienced violence at school in the 12 months between 2011 and 2012. One in 16 had experienced a physical assault and close to one in 20 learners had been raped or sexually assaulted at school.

Violence is sadly not like measles: it does not happen once and then you’re done. “Violent incidents occurring at schools were often not isolated, one-off incidents. A great number of learners were re-victimised following their first encounter with threats, robberies, assaults or sexual assaults. Not only did many learners succumb to the same crime on multiple occasions, many also fell victim to different types of violence,” Leoschut writes.

South Africa’s schools face various layers of violence: gang-related violence, bullying, fighting, and abuse by teachers.

Professor Catherine Ward, a University of Cape Town (UCT) psychologist in the field of violence prevention, warns it is misleading to assume that violence in schools is only between learners. “A large percentage of the violence within schools is perpetrated by teachers – learners being beaten,” she says.

In South Africa, there are significant problems with teacher misconduct, ranging from absenteeism to sexual abuse, alcohol abuse, negligence of duties and bullying. To make matters worse, perceptions of abuse are alienating those teachers who want to do good.

A key challenge is to equip teachers to manage conflict in non-violent ways, Ward believes.

The literature shows a couple of things,” she says. “If schools are doing their jobs and focusing on academics, properly assessing kids and giving them a reason to move forward, those schools tend to display lower levels of violence. Schools that are struggling with curriculum implementations and assessments, as well as teacher training, tend to demotivate children.

One needs to take a whole-school approach. Everyone has to be on board, from the cleaner to the principal. There must be a clear policy dealing with violence, ranging from discipline to bullying. Learners must be given alternatives, and focus on conflict resolution and assertiveness training.”

Discipline has an important role, says Ward. “School policy needs to include that aggression between learners is not tolerated.”

Unfortunately, Ward says, there is little research on non-violent classroom management in South Africa, although there is a fair amount in the US and UK.

But how is a teacher meant to tell a child politely to sit down when they have a knife in their hand? one might ask.

By the time a child has a knife in their hand, they are beyond classroom management,” says Ward. “The process has to begin much earlier. The same techniques should be used as in child behaviour management. Praise the behaviour you want to see – praise it many more times than you would note the behaviour you don’t want to see. Catch them being good. It needs to start at a young age.

The objection from educators is often that it has to start in families. The families do have a big role to play. But even if the families are off the rails, the kids don’t have to be off the school rails.”

When it comes to gang violence, the territory is different. “Schools need to be clear that gang behaviour isn’t tolerated in a school environment,” says Ward. “Learners should not be permitted to wear gang colours, for instance.” But there is a limited amount a school can do. Beyond learners themselves, schools are disempowered.

Gang violence, although it forms a small percentage of school violence in South Africa overall, has a devastating effect. It is most prevalent in the Western Cape, where there are some 100,000 gang members and roughly one gang-related murder a day in gang-dominated areas. Here, turf wars terrorise communities. In a study by Vusi Mncube and Chris Steinmann, they noted that “the fear of gang-related violence at school can be as harmful as primary victimisation and personal experiences of violence, causing learners to drop out or avoid school, or to lose concentration in the classroom and in learners developing healthy pro-social relationships as actual victimisation… gang violence has a negative effect on the delivery of quality of education”.

Schools can have their anti-violence policy, but they can’t do very much about having a turf war across school grounds,” says Ward. “Gangs are a very particular issue.

However, there are things that can be done. A truce can be negotiated with gang leaders, which is feasible and possible, but not necessarily within the remit of schools – it is more within the remit of police.” Ward notes that such truces have been negotiated in Hanover Park, Cape Town.

Principal Ronald Fortune, headmaster of Christel House* in Ottery, has previously negotiated with gang leaders to extricate a learner from a gang, and daily works with at-risk learners in violence prevention. Ottery is a war zone of gang fighting. Yet Christel House is not a violent place. Furthermore, according to its annual report, its learners outperform the best-resourced government schools and are more likely to study further (40% in tertiary education vs. the national average of 16%) and be employed later (84% versus the Western Cape youth employment average of 32%). Their projected earnings are 2.5 times more than their public school peers.

Christel House is privately funded and selects learners based not on academic merit, but on financial need. It’s a mainstream school, but some learners do have learning disabilities. However, all learners have one thing in common: they live in extreme poverty. One of the previous top achievers in matric, Lerecia Bailey, lived out of a shopping trolley with her four siblings after her mother died of kidney failure. Additionally, most learners live in gang- and drug-ridden areas. But the school believes in creating alternatives.

In line with Ward’s assessment, Fortune says: “At Christel House, we work with what we’ve got… To fight trauma, we create dreams.”

Christel House’s funds provide children with a support system socially, physically, mentally and academically. For many learners, exposure to violence is frequent, and trauma can affect their performance. So they are supported.

Learners are given two meals and a snack each day; medical care; counselling and social workers; a college and careers programme after graduation; parental support via training and workshops; a longer school day; mother tongue support for Xhosa and Afrikaans learners; and additional tutoring. Family planning is also provided.

The teachers, says Fortune, are incredibly dedicated – including Fortune himself. If a learner doesn’t come to school, one of the teachers or Fortune goes to fetch them. If there is a problem at home, the teachers or Fortune intervene. Top achiever in 2011, Chadne Morkel, talks of how the school helped her mother when she was unemployed, assisting her with training and job seeking.

So why aren’t all schools doing this? You guessed it: funding. Each learner costs Christel House an average of R51,564 per year. This is not as big a leap as one would guess – South Africa spends more on basic education than most other countries, roughly 20% of total government expenditure for 2014/2015, a total of R254 billion – but the current school model yields comparatively poor results. [Out of interest, the Institute of Internal Auditors reports that corruption has cost South Africa R700 billion in two decades – enough to educate 13,575,362 learners at Christel House-level for a year.]

Despite Christel House’s obvious financial advantage, the rest of the country doesn’t need to be in completely dire straits. Scottsdene Secondary increased its pass rate yearly after 2011 thanks to mentorship from a retired principal, despite devastating violence nearby. Charley du Preez tutored learners on request of the WCED, typed assignments, monitored attendance and gave learners a lift home if they stayed after school to study.

As for avoidable issues, inequality is one. There is a significant gap in how well some schools are resourced compared to others. Secondly, teacher performance may be indirectly affected by a lack of funding – in that overcrowded classes or inadequate training may lead to disengagement – but Ward says there are improvements that can be made without more funding.

Particularly when they get to high school, learners can be very aggressive,” says Ward. “Teachers need to supervise at all times.” Ward relates an incident at a school in Belhar that she was supervising, where a fight broke out and a teacher paid no attention. At another, school started at 8am but teachers had a staff meeting until 9am, leaving learners to roam the school for an hour. “All that is incredibly important,” says Ward. “There will not be time for anything else if learners are properly engaged in their lessons.”

Recognising that violence at schools has reached “concerning proportions”, Open Society and the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention have launched the Hlayiseka School Safety Toolkit, which has gone through initial testing and is now being tested more widely. There is another bright spot: adolescents who are violent will not necessarily stay that way, and as the saying goes, a stitch in time saves nine. A seminal study by Terrie Moffit included two key findings: firstly, the majority of people who are violent in their youth are adolescent limited offenders. Secondly, youths are most vulnerable following secondary socialisation. In situations where young people are being bullied at school, living in violent communities, or simply not being taught appropriate ways to assert themselves, violence prevention is most successful at the beginning of adolescence.

Regarding gang violence, however, Ward says there is no short cut. “Schools have a role to play in prevention,” she says, adding that this applies to drug abuse, unsafe sex and other high-risk behaviour as well. “But if we want gangs to go away in the long run, we need to improve our schooling and the economy, so that there are legitimate ways of making an income.” DM

* Disclosure: The writer’s previous employer is affiliated with Christel House. The writer still makes donations to Christel House.

Photo: A student is pictured at a school in Khutsong Township, 74 km (46 miles) west of Johannesburg August 22, 2011. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko.

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