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EXTREME VIOLENCE

Under the gun — can we prevent mass school shootings in South Africa?

Under the gun — can we prevent mass school shootings in South Africa?
Demonstrators attend a March for Our Lives rally against gun violence at the National Mall in Washington, DC on 11 June 2022. The movement was spurred by the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018. (Photo: Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images)

Violence is pervasive in our society and schools need to offer an alternative way to deal with conflict to prevent Columbine-type tragedies.

The Columbine High School massacre in 1999 was seen as a watershed moment in the US – the worst mass shooting at a school in the country’s history.

Three school shootings in the past decade have surpassed that death toll: 2012’s Sandy Hook Elementary School attack, in which a gunman killed 26 children and school staff; the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which claimed the lives of 17; and more recently the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two adults were murdered on 24 May 2022.

A mass shooting is an incident in which four or more people, excluding the perpetrator(s), are shot in one location at roughly the same time. The American public are momentarily shocked when these shootings happen, but seem to continue as normal.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Stuck to their guns – another school shooting, but US no closer to firearms reform

South Africans too seem to take violence in their stride. Recent newspaper articles caution that violent crime is threatening to turn our public schools into war zones. Earlier this year a primary school principal was shot at school by a pupil. There was a small outcry, but schools continued as normal.

The truth in South Africa is that violence already is a pervasive part of the social fabric of our society.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Schoolgirl killed, cop murdered in wild week of Western Cape shootings

In a 2006 South African Psychiatry Review article, Professor Ronnie Casella and I observed that the then minister of safety and security had been able to declare certain areas – such as schools – firearm-free zones and the South African Police, in collaboration with schools, had begun implementing the law.

The age of a person who is permitted to own a gun was raised from 16 to 18. However, though gun policies associated with the Firearms Control Act are important in managing the ownership of guns, it remains easy for many young people, even those under the legal age for gun ownership, to get a gun.

In 2008, Morné Harmse, a Krugersdorp matric pupil, killed another pupil by slashing his throat using a samurai sword. He then went on to wound another pupil and two of the support staff at the school. It was reported in the media that he had discussed with his friends how he would go about perpetrating a Columbine-type massacre at the school.

The Harmse attack, at least based on popular media reports, was blamed on a range of factors: Satanism, bullying, poor self-esteem, heavy metal music, copycat action and behaviour change. But exactly what triggers this kind of extreme violence?

Read more in Daily Maverick: Parents call for drastic measures to combat rising violence in Gauteng schools

Harvard researcher Katherine Newman and her colleagues carried out more than 100 interviews with victims, bystanders and perpetrators after a wave of mass shootings.

They reviewed the hypotheses that had been put forward to explain these shootings, including media violence, bullying, gun culture, family problems, mental illness, peer relations, demographic change, a culture of violence and copycatting.

They concluded that most of these hypotheses contained an element of truth, but one factor was not enough and a combination of factors acted as a trigger.

Newman and associates developed a theory and proposed that five necessary but not sufficient factors needed to be present in rampageous shootings. These can also be applied in the Krugersdorp stabbing case.

The first is the perpetrator’s perception of himself as being on the periphery of the social group. Elements such as bullying, exclusion and isolation, and being different and on the fringe underpin this factor.

The second is that perpetrators suffer from psychosocial problems that magnify alienation. The third factor is cultural scripts, which provide models for solving problems, such as the belief that killing peers and teachers resolves problems.

The fourth factor, and the one I choose to focus on later, is the failure of the school to notice that things are not going well and that a child requires closer attention.

Read more in Daily Maverick: One victim dies after Finland school shooting, 12-year-old suspect held

Read more in Daily Maverick: Serbia school shooting: boy kills nine in Belgrade classroom

The fifth factor is the ease with which perpetrators can access guns or weapons such as a sword.

In a 2023 article, Professor Harold Schwartz brought together the latest theories and argued that we know that virtually all mass school shooters return to a school they attended to wreak havoc. Their schools were places of failure and isolation, bullying, rejection or ostracism. All the mass school shootings were carried out by men or boys, and their average age was 18.

Schwartz concurs that gun ownership and overall gun violence are results of their being easily available. He observes that the rates of gun deaths are not associated with rates of mental illness. Instead, gun deaths by suicide, homicide and mass murder are associated with per capita gun ownership.

Schwartz noted that “the ubiquitous condition experienced by almost all mass school shooters, however, is the social isolation produced by dysfunctional families; withdrawal, suspension, or expulsion from school; failed relationships; and the diminution of face-to-face time in an internet- and social media-driven world”.

Violence has become endemic in South African society, and schools need to offer an alternative way to deal with conflict. From a school perspective, we need to immediately do away with many of the practices that foster violence. Practices such as corporal punishment, which teach children the values of degradation, force and humiliation, must be eliminated. Intimidation by leaders and teachers also needs to be avoided. Discipline is best done privately.

Teaching and learning need to be central in schools, particularly because performance is a measure of self-worth for most pupils. Each pupil needs to be assisted to achieve the best he or she is capable of. Pupils need to experience a sense of accomplishment and their efforts need to be recognised and rewarded.

Teachers need to be vigilant and monitor pupil behaviour. If there is a change in the way in which a pupil behaves, then they must do something about it. Schools need to ensure that there are adults to supervise pupils and that these adults are visible in high-risk areas. These adults need to take an active interest and make sure safety is a real concern. If drugs and weapons are a serious problem, then the school needs to conduct regular, unannounced searches.

School policies must ensure the safety of pupils. Policies and codes of conduct that are developed collaboratively should be communicated and understood by everyone in the school community.

From a conflict resolution perspective, it is important to teach pupils how to deal with conflict when it arises. Schools should not just expect pupils to solve all their problems on their own; pupils should be involved in problem-solving and violence prevention wherever possible.

In the final analysis, it is difficult to predict where and when the next school massacre will happen. The South African context of violence, the context of violence in schools and the poor levels of pastoral surveillance continue to provide a fertile ground for school violence. DM

Dr Mark Potterton is director of the Three2Six Refugee Education Project.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Charl Engelbrecht says:

    The minimum age for legal firearm ownership in South Africa is 21. Most of the examples in this piece is drawn from the United States – hardly a fair comparison to South Africa, where most shootings are attributable to gang warfare and political assassinations. Who is sponsoring Dr. Potterton’s disinformation campaign? (Doctor of what?).

  • David Peddle says:

    An interesting question, RSA school shootings/crime, which despite the above article having never been discussed in academically peer-reviewed articles to my knowledge, is why is the US lived experience of school shootings not replicated in SA schools?
    As MP’s article has indicated, as has other literature – from the US, indicated, that the US school shooter is in the main a disturbed 18-year-old male who has a grudge and severe death wishes and has a thirst to wreak vengeance on his past school. (Brady stats for the US in 2023. – 60% of gun deaths are suicide and 37% are homicide — including the 1% of mass shootings. The remaining 3% of gun deaths include law enforcement-involved shootings, unintentional shootings, and those that were undetermined. bradyunited)
    SA is very different, so much so, as to negate the value of any US studies, bar to look at the shooter’s psychological mindset! Our shootings have been, where one finds any academic studies done on SA school shootings, largely criminal in origin and mostly between one gang member and another, or an attempt to gain status, by shooting someone, in the shooter’s gang.
    While black and coloured schools have largely been the target for such shooting incidents as have occurred, the mainly white schools have not! Why is this? – a case for an academic study I am sure. However, the results of such a study will no doubt speak to the socio-economic environment surrounding the school and the nature of criminality in the area.
    The SA society is, if one were to believe GFSA, awash with illegal guns and such shootings are just waiting to occur! A much more violent society than the US crime-ridden areas. Six years ago, the murder rate in South Africa was 34 per 100,000 of the population. (USA 21,593 /100,000- 2022). It increased to 36,5 in 2022 (Statista, an international data and business intelligence forum). It now stands at 45, the second highest in the world. 16 Feb 2024.
    So why are we not reflecting these stats in our schools and to a large degree only in certain known areas of SA?

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