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Bring a Shotgun to School Day

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

Instead of educating the children in their care, it appears some teachers are raping... sorry, engaging in “love affairs” with them. This scourge needs to end, swiftly. The alternative is vigilante justice and, frankly, it is hard to take the moral high ground against those who seek to avenge their children’s loss of innocence.

A deeply disturbing article appeared last month in the Cape Times. It cites a department of basic education report which found that over 45,000 schoolgirls fell pregnant in 2009. 

This is down 8.7% from almost 50,000 in 2008, but, alarmingly, it includes 109 children in grade 3 and 107 in grade 4, where the typical age is 10 or less, up from 17 and 69 respectively a year earlier. More than a quarter of the total are girls in grade 9 or below – classes where a majority is younger than 16. In the absence of an explicit age breakdown, this suggests about 10,000 pregnancies among minors.

The worst-affected provinces, in both absolute numbers of pregnant schoolgirls and relative numbers per school-going population, are KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga. Between them, these four provinces accounted for 82.8% of all school pregnancies in 2009, with between eight pregnancies per 1,000 schoolgirls for the Eastern Cape and 12 per 1,000 for Limpopo.

Children’s rights groups, according to the Cape Times, attribute this alarming state of affairs to lack of parental care at home and abuse by older boys. Not surprisingly, the South African Democratic Teacher’s Union agrees with this assessment. An article in the Natal Mercury quotes a union spokesman: “Pupils are not falling pregnant in school – it is happening outside school.”

Contradicting this view, however, is Senzo Mchunu, KwaZulu-Natal’s education MEC, who told the Mercury that male teachers are to blame in the majority of cases.

He goes on to use a shocking turn of phrase. “Mchunu said he had dismissed a number of teachers this year who were involved in love affairs with pupils but, instead of abating, the trend seemed to be getting worse.”

Never mind that the trend in his province is in fact not getting worse, but improved by 11.7%. He calls them “love affairs”? It looks like reported speech, and therefore probably constitutes Mchunu’s choice of words, but did that phrase not startle the Mercury’s journalists? How can an editor let such a phrase slide? If an official refers to a bribe as a “facilitation fee”, an agent calls torture “enhanced interrogation” or a criminal calls theft “redistribution”, wouldn’t good reporting highlight the subjective nature and blatant cynicism of the phrase by placing it in quotation marks or explicitly challenging it?

Let’s be clear: in thousands of cases, we’re talking about outright child rape here. We’re discussing people, among them teachers, who abuse their positions of power in the most cold and callous way to destroy the lives of girls as young as eight.

Mchunu’s command of English may well be deficient, in which case his phrase might be forgivable, but then a polite query by an alert journalist could have prompted him to rephrase his statement. That the term “love affairs” was used without question, however, suggests callous disregard for the magnitude of the crime. Even in cases where affairs between teachers and girls over the age of consent could be interpreted merely as a breach of trust and gross abuse of power, the term would be misleading.

In Mchunu’s defence, he did call the situation “ugly” and said “these are my children as well”. Moreover, the paucity of media coverage about this scandal suggests that tens of thousands of pregnant adolescents, many of whom were raped, are less newsworthy than, say, a puerile painting of an insecure politician with a fake cock drawn on it.

But even if the phrase was just an unfortunate oversight, why are teachers who rape children just quietly dismissed? And why was this statement not challenged either? The last time I checked, rape was a heinous crime. When committed against a child, it is the one crime that is so low that even other criminals are likely to lynch the perpetrator.

The Mercury piece claims some of the rapists bribed parents not to lay charges. If so, those parents are accessories to child rape. A sufficiently outraged prosecutor would argue that accepting hush money from rapists is no different from pimping out children for prostitution. The article fails to explain why such parents are not jailed alongside the rapists who masquerade as teachers, if only to prevent further child abuse.

It is tempting to consider poverty an extenuating circumstance for accepting bribes in return for silence. Although poverty does add complexity to any strategy to address the problem, it is by no means an excuse. It is not a defence in law, and this claim insults the millions of poor people who do not consider their own poverty a moral justification for violating the rights of others, especially the most vulnerable among them – their own children.

A perverse twist on the poverty argument comes from a parent in Limpopo, who is quoted in an article in The Star from 25 January 2011: “Rose Pila, one of the parents monitoring pregnant girls at the school, blamed child-support grants for the scourge. ‘Everybody in this village wants to become pregnant so they can get the government grant.’”

It is true that if you reward bad behaviour, you’re likely to get more of it, as is the case with all subsidies. That’s simple economics. However, like poverty, the prospect of unearned financial gain is hardly a legitimate defence for permitting children to fall pregnant or tolerating rape.

Besides, the statistics don’t bear out a simplistic poverty explanation. The provinces with the lowest school pregnancy numbers in both absolute and relative terms are also the most improved from 2008 to 2009. In the lead are Northwest Province and the Northern Cape, with only 0.7 and 1.8 pregnancies per 1,000 schoolgirls, respectively. Of the next two on the list, the Free State and Western Cape, with 2.5 pregnancies per 1,000 girls each, one is substantially richer than the leading two, and one is somewhat poorer. No province is as wealthy as Gauteng, which scores right between the best four and worst four provinces, with a pregnancy rate of 5.5 of per 1,000 schoolchildren. Gauteng also saw a dramatic 34.5% rise in school pregnancies between 2008 and 2009. (Mpumalanga was the only other province that reported an increase in school pregnancy statistics in 2009, up by 5.7% over 2008.)

Mchunu reportedly told the Mercury that “the department of education was not mandated to look at issues of abuse in schools or sexual relationships between pupils and teachers”.

Hogwash. In 2009, the department published a commendably detailed and nuanced Teenage Pregnancy Report in conjunction with the Human Sciences Research Council and the United Nations Children’s Fund. In its foreword, the basic education minister, Angie Motshekga, said: “The department will develop a comprehensive strategy towards addressing learner pregnancy in South Africa, outlining definitive interventions for implementation through the schooling system.”

Perhaps Mchunu has not heard of a strategy towards definitive interventions for implementation, whatever that means. Perhaps the strategy ended up in a ditch alongside all the textbooks that got destroyed. But that there once was a clear mandate to “look at” these problems is indisputable.

The 2009 Teenage Pregnancy Report makes it clear that the problem of adolescent pregnancies is complex and not easily solved. But if the best we can do is “dismiss” teachers for “love affairs” with their underage charges, we risk a far more dangerous future.

A government exercises powers to which the people have a natural right, and which the people have duly delegated to it. One of the primary powers people delegate to government is the exercise of criminal justice. Their motive is to avoid the need for people to take the law into their own hands, which risks rash, erroneous or vengeful action. And seldom is the danger of boiling blood greater than when a mob is raised to avenge the rape of a child. In few cases will the vigilante enjoy more sympathy from the community, and the perpetrator enjoy less.

When children get raped by the very people who ought to be responsible for their upbringing, the least the government can do is look like it takes the issue seriously enough to bring swift justice to the perpetrators. Quietly dismissing teachers and using coy phrases like “love affairs” can only serve to inflame angry communities.

People might in theory approve of laws against vigilante justice or inciting violence, but righteous anger, wounded honour and distressed emotion can blind even the most rational among us. If that were to happen, education officials and the teachers’ union might as well prepare for Bring a Shotgun to School Day. DM


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