Another headline screams: ‘Girl offered R10 after gang-rape’. Once again, a 15-year-old tells the story of how she was gang-raped repeatedly for ten hours. Recently, we writhed in horror as a video of a different young lady from Bramfischerville being gang-raped – and offered R2 for her silence – went viral on social networks. Incensed, I have to wonder: how severely has our South African narrative devolved if sex has, to this extent, become a weapon of choice? And, more terrifyingly still, if this kind of domination and brutality becomes a widespread form of entertainment?
It doesn’t stop there. An equally – or perhaps even more – sinister sexual violence is creeping up alongside, where children are violated by those they trust as much as their own parents. I am talking, of course, about incidents of statutory rape committed by teachers. Nikki Stein, an attorney from Section 27, recounts the horrific story of a thirteen-year-old girl who was drugged, kidnapped and raped by her teacher. Section 27 is, currently, buried in seven cases of sexual violence, all perpetrated by teachers against learners in their care.
And not all teachers go to the lengths of drugging and kidnapping. Some attacks are more insidious. In its most grotesque form, this kind of rape masquerades as consensual sex, especially where the child is over 16. But it remains abuse. It does not matter if the child thinks he or she is willing; it is up to the teacher to maintain the professionalism of the relationship and, above all, protect the child. I remember my own adolescence; how many times I became infatuated with my female teachers. It is part of adolescence. It is not an excuse for child abuse. Adults should, as grown people, understand the psychological power they hold over the children in their care.
Something needs to be done, and urgently. It is not enough that we are outraged by the periodic emergence of outrageous accounts; that we enter the public discourse with expressions of shock and disgust. Public debate around the issue soon dissipates, and we seem, collectively, to forget about it all, until the next incident. The talk is not enough; this cycle needs to end. We need serious reflection, and to really address the issues that lead to this plague upon our society.
How are young men, or even boys, supposed to learn that it is not acceptable to rape their female peers, that it is not acceptable to disrespect women or see sex as a violent form of dominance – something they are entitled to – if their male role models are no better? How are we to build a society without this kind of gender violence when teachers are behaving in this way, and parents are ignoring the impact of such behaviour on their children?
Yet so often the damage goes unrecognised. I, as a parent myself, turn to the parents of these learners and the rest of society and ask myself, “How is it that you, as a mom or dad, fail to recognise the deep psychological impact and resultant behavioural changes your child manifests when engaged in a sexual relationship with a teacher? How do you stand by and let such a relationship continue if you have knowledge of this situation? And how on earth can principals, the leaders in the education of our children at schools, claim ignorance about these abuses unfolding within their institutions?”
SADTU condemns the sexual misconduct perpetrated by teachers. The teachers’ union points to a code of conduct drafted as a guiding principle for their members, which has been condensed so that they have an easy reference and reminder. Why do teachers need to be explicitly told, in print, not to engage in sexual relationships with their learners? Unions have to go beyond condemning these actions in meetings of their own constituency.
If the teachers’ unions have the will to show society that they are not the scapegoats for the misconduct of their members and that they care for more than just contributing members, they need to make a clear, public and unequivocal statement of condemnation. They need to be explicit that teachers who have overwhelming evidence against them are not automatically entitled to representation. If this becomes the norm, then society, encompassing the unions, parents and everyone else, will show these predators that South Africa has no tolerance for their violations.
The fundamental, proactive responsibility in dealing with teachers that have been accused of misconduct of this nature falls with the employer, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and its various subsets at provincial, regional and local level. The responsibility lies with it to swiftly charge, suspend and launch an investigation against whichever teacher may be accused of such serious misconduct.
An expert in basic education elaborates on three processes that are entered into when an allegation of sexual misconduct is brought against a teacher. The DBE should initiate a disciplinary process, whilst the South African Police Services (SAPS) should launch a criminal investigation, where applicable, that leads to prosecution and the South African Council of Educators (SACE), after a guilty finding at the disciplinary process, is tasked with the administrative process of removing the offending teacher from the teacher’s registry/roll. This ensures that the offending teacher is not only dismissed from the school in question, but that this person cannot ever teach at any other institution ever again.
There are, however, gaping irregularities with these processes. Firstly, the victim is generally subjected to four severe instances of trauma. The actual experience of being sexually abused, followed by three accounts of the event in a disciplinary enquiry, a court of law during a criminal prosecution, and in front of SACE. Certainly SACE, as legislated, should perform an administrative function only, without the need for further investigation or the hearing of evidence from the victim. Unfortunately, SACE it conducts a third hearing, exponentially subjecting the victim to yet another, unnecessary round of questioning.
Apart from repeated traumatic recounting, the processes are cumbersome; they occur over an extended time period and in most instances do not prioritise the safety and psychological wellbeing of the victim.
When reviewing this scenario, it is clear that the co-ordinated efforts of the unions, the DBE, SAPS and SACE can minimise the trauma of the innocent victims of these horrific sexual violations. The unions’ mandate demands that they protect the employment rights of their members, and society demands no less. SACE, by extending their function, is lengthening a simple process, thereby limiting their own capacity to discharge their duties and are repeating the trauma of the victims. Inefficiencies in swiftly investigating and prosecuting allegations of this nature, by both the DBE and SAPS, result in many of these cases remaining unresolved for extended time periods. This leaves many of the victims with the indignity of having to face their perpetrators every day in the classroom.
Too often, even when action is taken, the problem is ‘re-deployed’ elsewhere to a new school, to a new environment where the abuse continues unabated.
Until we address these questions truthfully and honestly, we will not see the rising tide of sexual violence against our female children abate. No amount of governmental or institutionalised intervention will make a significant impact on this most severe indictment on the health of our society if we ourselves do not deal with the issue. We are saying one thing, expressing our disgust with the prevailing status quo, but our behaviour says otherwise: our complicity and our silence give our young males the impression that sex is an entitlement that can be exchanged for ten, even two rand. We are raising a generation of men that will have no regard for their wives, sisters and mothers, the very core of our society.
We need decisive public debate and action on this deep and bloody blot on our democracy. We need to reminded again, by the cries of our children and our mothers, why so many sacrificed so much for the freedom we have. DM
Princeton barred women from its astronomy graduate programme until 1975.