One in five South African secondary school pupils is a victim of violence, including assault, robbery and even cyber‐bullying.  – The Centre for Justice & Crime Prevention

Kenny Pasensie1. Introduction

We have become so desensitised to violence that we no longer utter an outcry when we read about the  latest  violent  incidents  in  our  schools.  In many areas it  is  common for  learners to carry among their books, knives, guns and other weapons – almost as if these have become their new educational tools.

In a recent roundtable discussion on school violence in  South  Africa,  the  Centre  for  Justice and   Crime   Prevention   (CJCP)   presented   the results of its second National School Violence Study1 . This briefing paper will highlight some of the discussion points.

2. The Extent of the Problem

The CJCP’s study points to a disturbing fact: most of the incidents of violence in schools are perpetrated by the learners themselves. This runs contrary to the popular belief that it is most often outsiders –  such  as  gangsters  or  tsotsis –  who enter   school   premises   and   commit   acts   of violence. And this finding has been corroborated by the University of South Africa’s school violence study:

“…they [schools] actually perpetrate the violence themselves or reproduce it by their failure to act, rather than have it imposed upon them from the outside.”    

However, this does not mean that schools, and learners,  can  be  seen  in  isolation  from their surrounding social realities. Schools are to a large extent   influenced   by   the community   in   which they are located, and often reflect the prevalence of violence within the wider community. A majority of the learners who had experienced violence at school said that crime was rife in their community  and/or  that  they  had  witnessed  a fight in their neighbourhood.

The CJCP study gathered information from 5 939 learners, 121 principals and 239 teachers from secondary schools across all 9 provinces. It is also important  to  note  that 19.9%  of  the  schools sampled   were   located   in   metropolitan   areas; 22.8% were in urban areas and over half (57.3%) were   in   rural   areas.   Of   the   learners sampled, 12.2%   had   been   threatened   with   violence   by someone   at   school;   6.3% had   been   assaulted; 4.7%  had  been  sexually  assaulted  or  raped;  and 4.5% had been robbed at school.

The study also indicated that provincial location was a significant predictor of school violence. The Free State had the highest percentage of violent victimisation   (30.4%), with the   Western   Cape (28.7%)  and  Limpopo  (25.2%)  following.  On  the other  hand,  the Northern  Cape  (11.2%)  showed the highest number of sexual assaults.

3. What Lies Behind It?

As mentioned above, school communities reflect what happens in  the  broader community. How the community is  organised, environmental factors such as family instability and unemployment, levels of criminality, and levels of substance abuse, are all factors that contribute to how  learners  behave.  For  example,  the  CJCP study revealed a strong correlation between the general level of crime in a province and the level of violence in schools in that province. Thus, the Free State had the highest overall levels of crime and also  the  highest  levels  of  school  violence across all crime types.

Children  or  learners  exposed  to  violence  at  a young age often ‘communicate’ through violence. This speaks to what appears to be an underlying social problem in South Africa: the quick resort to violence as a mechanism to ‘resolve’ disputes or tensions. And, of course, when this form of behaviour is acquired at a child’s most impressionable age, it is difficult to shake off, and thus becomes replicated in the next generation.

Family structure and circumstances also play a key role in the learner’s risk for victimisation and violence perpetration. The breakdown of values within the family was constantly cited during the roundtable discussion as a significant contributor to school violence. The CJCP study showed evidence that family criminality – where a learner’s sibling, parent or caregiver had been in jail – significantly increased the learner’s chances of    violent    victimisation    or    of    perpetrating violence.

According to the CJCP study, other factors that play a significant contributory role in youth (and school) violence are: poverty and unemployment; the   availability   of   drugs   and   alcohol;   gang activity; lack of access to recreational opportunities   and   facilities;    and   inadequate housing.

4. Potential Solutions 

It  is  a  matter  of  some  concern  that  issues  of school violence have not always been uppermost on the agendas of policy makers. For instance, it appears that school violence has not been discussed at a portfolio committee level 3 , and in a recent  question  posed  to the  Minister  of  Basic Education,   the   impression   was   given   that   the Department  of Basic  Education  (DBE) was  not fully aware of the scale of the problem.

However, some initiatives have been put in place by the DBE. Under the rubric of the ‘whole‐school approach’  the DBE is currently  developing   a ‘School Safety Framework’ that will ensure that a comprehensive school safety programme is implemented.  The  Minister  of  Basic  Education has also signed a ‘Collaborative Partnership Protocol’ with her Police Service counterpart. The Protocol aims to:

  • strengthen   safe   school   committees   in addressing crime and violence in schools;
  • allow police officers to assume an active role as members  of safe school committees;
  • link  all  schools  to  local  police  stations (currently 15 772 schools are linked);
  • raise awareness among children regarding crime and violence;
  • mobilise  communities  to  take  ownership of schools; and
  • encourage  the  establishment  of  reporting systems at schools.

The DBE has also developed training manuals to address bullying at schools, and this training – for principals, governing bodies, parents, teachers, learners, and provincial and district officials – has been rolled out since March 2013.

Various steps have also been taken by provincial education  departments.  For  example, the Western Cape Education Department has, as part of  its  intervention strategy, adopted  legislation that provides for random search and seizure of drugs and weapons. The Western Cape Provincial School Education Act 7 , which was passed into law in  2011,  states  that  no  person  may  bring  any dangerous objects, alcohol or illegal drugs onto the school premises during or after school hours. The Act further empowers any school principal or his or her delegate to search any learner, or the property of any learner, for any dangerous object, alcoholic liquor, or illegal drug, if  the principal reasonably suspects the presence thereof on the school  premises  or  during  a  school  activity.  If there is reasonable and reliable evidence that a learner is concealing a dangerous object or illegal substance in the body of that particular learner, the principal may request a member of the South African   Police   Services   to   conduct   a   more extensive search of that learner’s person, which may entail the removal of clothing.

Individual schools and communities have also taken steps to address the problem. Some schools have resorted to employing private security companies, while others have approached their local Community Police Forums for help.

Other role players and NGOs are also undertaking initiatives. For example, the Catholic Institute of Education has developed a Child Safeguarding Policy for all Catholic schools in South Africa. The underlying principles that  guide  the  policy  are that  all  schools  create  safe  environments; that everyone involved with the school supports the care and protection of children; that all children have  equal  rights  to  protection  from  abuse and exploitation; and that all staff have a duty to keep children safe from abuse.

5. Conclusion

The CJCP study points to the fact that violence is a  serious problem in our schools and that its pervasiveness is contributing to the education crisis South Africa is facing. A multitude of factors contribute to school violence, and it will require a multi‐pronged approach to address the issue properly. While the societal challenges may seem huge, the first steps must be to safeguard the schools –  to  teach learners about  violent behaviour and how to deal with it; to teach conflict‐resolution  approaches;  to  equip educators to deal with violent behaviour; and, perhaps most importantly, to equip parents and families  with  the  insights  and  skills  to  avoid violence in the home and the community.

Kenny Pasensie – Researcher – Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office