Our schools as killing fields

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This past week parents and society were again reminded that there are so many reasons for them to fear our schools.  If a child does not die in a pit latrine, she may fear scorn from some bullies and some teachers. There is much chance that learners may drop out when they see schoolwork insurmountable, or sometimes irrelevant. The school routine, what some refer to the “grammar of schooling”, may also repel some learners, thus make many pose numerous questions. The potential workplaces are also beginning to ask what schools do as they receive what they deem as underprepared youth. The society has many reasons to fear schools. Several parents maintain that teachers no longer instil morality as discipline continues to plummet. The teachers question the commitment of parents who usually send half-rowdy children to school; furthermore, teachers also raise their fears for unrestrained youth in their classrooms.

Yet the indictment should be on us all; our society is failing schools, as countless people now tend to believe that the present schools can never redeem society from its ills. The cynic maintains that we have no future as children slay each other with pangas on school grounds. This has become so rampant that the communities have become callous as they are beginning to get used to these killings. This is so sickening, so distasteful because it questions the core values of the society. The recent incident in Turfontein’s Forest Hill High School is the latest that should spur us to engage in debates as we contemplate the future and the role schools should play.

Generally, schools are fast becoming institutions that harbour fearful role-players. Teachers have been experiencing terror from their children who dare them to fisticuffs. Sadly, some teachers are considering leaving the profession, as they fear their classrooms. In several incidents, learners challenge their teachers into duels as fellow learners cheer. Yet, there are also children who fear the classrooms as they shy away from ridicule from teachers. Even in an age of decolonising knowledge, some children are cautioned daily to desist from talking their unintelligible languages in class. Therefore, some learners continue to dread the classrooms. But the latest tragedy in Forest Hill School appears to have been spurred by enmity between learner gangs. Unfortunately, gangsterism has transformed our schools into killing fields where learners sharpen their anger and weapons instead of their intellect. Young gangsters promote crass materialism and promote warped role models in society.

As we push for real education reforms whilst also nursing the fledgling democracy, new challenges are surfacing. Among these challenges is the scourge of violence, which continues to take attention away from the introduction of real education reforms. Noble efforts are being delayed by unfortunate incidents and new cultures. Schools have become sanguinary trenches as gangs rule. Just in the past year alone, we have seen how children have been maiming each other on school grounds. One of the several shocking you tube videos shows one boy stabbing another in full view of fellow pupils and teachers; this sent shivers to many. Schools have also become drug havens where pupils puff a cocktail of drugs openly. Bullying has also escalated violent incidents, sometimes the victims bringing weapons to defend themselves when they get tired of the humiliation.  In the middle of all these are the teachers who frequently find themselves unable to fight the wave of violent incidents. The situation has become so untenable that teachers have become so careful, so reticent to try fray violent incidents. Teachers have become easy targets as they try to refuse to act outside the rule of law and act violently against the learners. 0640581200

In the coming week, it is going to be June 16 and we will commemorate the 1976 unfortunate deluge. Many of our learners may never remember Tsietsi Mashinini, Khotso Seatlholo or Lesley Hastings Ndlovu. They may never be able to appreciate the role of those who came before them in the liberation struggle. New heroes have emerged with guns and pangas, the new heroes push for new values. Real heroes spin cars audaciously on narrow paths, high on some drugs. Every day and every month, we sing dirges of those who fell on school grounds. The calamity rings in hundreds of schools, in all cities. Whilst society haggles over trivial goals, we need to think of how we get our children to the future alive. We need solutions quick or our schools will continue to stink and sink. All the role-players are in danger because schools harbour troubled children. They are in schools where the good ones are muffled and the odious are elevated. Years ago, young people formed a learners’ organisation whose mantra was “each one, teach one” – today we need the true application of this vision where the elusive good should permeate through our schools.

Nationally, we need to think of solutions to curb the violence torrent that is sweeping the schools. Our schools need to think seriously about the idea of peer counsellors where empowered learners can support fellow learners to find answers for troubling questions. It can be very powerful to promote an atmosphere where youth can share their feelings with trusted youth and subsequently find solutions. The idea of peer counsellors teaching others can go a long way in ensuring sustainable peace in schools. The Basic Education Department should also think of housing school psychologists in schools. To curb costs, one school psychologist or qualified professional counsellor can be responsible for up to ten schools. It is clear that we have troubled youth that need assistance as they face the challenges of life. Currently, young people in schools tend not to have confidants and frequently it may be devious characters who advise the young people. Qualified personnel that work closely with teachers may be able to nip several problems in the bud. We also need qualified teachers to teach a subject such as Life Orientation. Although we may currently not take this learning area seriously, its role may be critical in empowering the youth in schools. Unstable schools have a huge negative impact on school leadership. As society, we readily blame school managers for underperformance in schools whilst not acknowledging some of the endemic problems brought by learners’ truancy.  These thwart effective initiatives and render schools unstable.

Years ago the educator IB Tabata wrote about the barbarity in education as he portrayed the barbarity of apartheid schools in his book Education for Barbarism. Apartheid education then brainwashed children both black and white as the system created a white child who was to lead whilst the black child who was supposed to be a hewer of wood, as espoused by the honourable Dr Hendrik Verwoerd. However, another form of barbarity has surfaced in several forms today; more racism and segregation as well as the prevention of social justice principles in many schools.

But the nightmare for many parents and significant others is the sanguine visage that our schools are assuming. Guns, pangas, spears, are invading schools in large abundance. Many children go to school to defend themselves rather than to learn. What generation are we raising when a child is more concerned about safety after school than the mathematics homework or history project due the following week? A new barbarism is creeping silently destroying dreams and the country’s hopes. We will hardly build our future with cantankerous, belligerent learners as well as an unresponsive society.


Professor Vuyisile Msila works at Unisa’s Department of Leadership and Transformation. He writes in his personal capacity.