Bullying in South African Primary Schools: Cause for Concern
Learner-on-learner bullying continues to be a major concern in South African primary schools, disrupting the functioning of the schooling system. Bullying in schools can be described as a cruel and aggressive behaviour among school going children. It involves a learner or a group of learners who claim to be in power (perpetrators) inflicting discomfort over time through repeated verbal, emotional, physical and/or anti-social behaviour with the aim of intimidating and abusing other learners (victims). This negatively impacts victims’ ability to learn and engage with other learners and teachers within the school environment. Furthermore, it impacts the wider community as learners who are on the receiving end of abuse often fail to report it to their teachers and parents/guardians.
In this piece, I start by unpacking and analysing two incidents of bullying that I have come across since the commencement of the current academic year. The first was witnessed on Facebook, while the other one was witnessed second-hand through experiences shared by a school going child close to me who was a victim. I then offer some recommendations on what can be done to address the increasing prevalence of bullying/violence in South African primary schools.
Early on 26 January 2022, exactly a week after the coastal cluster opened, I learned of a bullying incident posted by a Facebook friend Nontokozo (pseudonym) that happened to her daughter. Nontokozo reported that her daughter had been exposed to brutal acts of bullying ever since schools opened in a primary school within the Zululand District in KwaZulu-Natal. She shared: My daughter has been going through bullying and not reporting it to me, up until yesterday where she didn’t want to go to school. I had to beg and ask her, repeatedly … what might be bothering her, only to find out that she is bullied by boys in her school. They were taking her money and even her lunchbox ever since schools opened.
She continued, ‘worse, they have been forcing themselves [boys] on her and kissing her. I am deeply hurt by this.’ Startled, and after reading her story for the second-time, my heart felt heavy hearing what this young girl had to experience in a learning environment at the hands of young boys who are her peers. I could imagine how helpless and vulnerable she felt. What disturbed me the most is that last time I heard such a story was when I was at school. Although I am aware as a teacher that bullying and violence are rife in South African schools, I was shocked to learn that what I had experienced in primary school, although not at first hand, was still happening.
The concerned Facebook community gathered with a view to offering support to Nontokozo and her daughter. They offered practical suggestions as to how she could seek justice for her daughter and prevent further abuse. Although burdened by a heavy heart, in her concluding remarks, Nontokozo pleaded with us as parents, guardians and community members to ‘…teach our children to love and protect each other.’ It is we elders who can instil such values and attitudes at home.
In mid-February 2022, I learned of another case of bullying in a South African primary school that happened to a very close family member. The girl had lost her facemask on the school premises. Her grandmother, who is in her mid ’70s told me that when she tried to get the six-year-old to tell her what had happened to her mask, she burst into tears. Remembering the earlier bullying incident, I feared the worst. I promised the grandmother I would intervene in my capacity as a close family member and teacher. I spoke to the child in the absence of her grandmother and she told me that, ‘two boys in my class (mentioning names), forcefully took my mask and told me not to report this to our teacher or at home because they would beat me up.’ I had to hide my face for a moment as I realised this was yet another case of bullying at school.
I hugged the child, and told her that everything would be okay and that I would attend to her case the following day at school. As a community member and teacher, my heart was filled with sadness and disappointment that such incidents are still happening, let alone in a school that I attended. I also wondered why the child confided in me when she wouldn’t speak to her grandmother. I realised that although she called me bhuti (brother) wherever we met and engaged at home, I was a teacher who she trusted to attend to the matter.
The following day, I put my research aside and travelled to the school. I engaged with the relevant teachers, and we tried our best to address the issue. However, I was concerned by the fact that the school had no policy on bullying.
Bullying or any form of violence in South African primary schools violates learners’ constitutional right to basic education as well as their right to “freedom and security of the person, which includes the right to be free from all forms of violence” (Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, Act 108 of 1996). Thus, all relevant stakeholders should ensure that measures are adopted to combat bullying and violence in schools.
Although much research has been conducted and continues to be done on the subject at hand, I propose the following context specific recommendations:
• I am reminded of Charles Dickens who wrote, ‘charity begins at home and justice begins next door.’ As family members, we need to teach our children from an early age to love themselves and the significant others they meet and engage with.
• All schools should formulate policies on bullying and any form of abuse/violence and these should be prominently displayed in classrooms, with the rules and consequences of such behaviour clearly spelt out. Teachers should constantly remind learners of these rules.
• Such policies should be aligned with the Department of Basic Education’s minimum standards on safety in schools and should be communicated to all relevant stakeholders, including learners, teachers, parents/guardians, and community members.
Let us work together to fight and end the scourge of bullying and abuse/violence that haunts our schools.
Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, Act 108 of 1996.
Mr Luthando Molefe is a lecturer (contract) in the Discipline of Science Education, within the Cluster of Science and Technology Education at UKZN’s School of Education.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.