Wake-up Call for Schools in South Africa

Wake-up Call for Schools in South Africa

Looming crisis of normalising violence is having a detrimental effect on SA's young people. Violence among learners at Mbilwi Secondary School in Limpopo that went viral should be a wake-up call.

The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) has dedicated work in communities that highlight the looming crisis of normalising violence – and the detrimental effects it has on young people growing up in South Africa today.

According to research conducted by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention, schools are supposed to be safe spaces to reinforce positive attitudes among learners.

Our work as the CSVR and the bullying at Mbilwi Secondary School that led to Lufuno Mavhunga's suicide says otherwise. The reality is that schools are also a fertile ground for violence.

CSVR's experience in working within communities for the past 30 years indicates that the boundaries between communities and schools are blurry and permeable in South Africa. What transpires in the context of schools is usually a reflection of what is taking place in the broader social contexts in which schools are located. In these contexts, communities that are susceptible to violence are more likely to breed violent schools.

Research suggests that exposure to violence reinforces violent behaviour, and being brought up in violent contexts negatively affects children's developmental process and understandings of positive conflict resolution mechanisms. Children learn, through exposure to violence – whether as victims or witnesses of harmful acts in their daily life – that acting violently is a normal or legitimate way of handling conflict.

Young people in South Africa find themselves regularly exposed to various forms of violence including: domestic violence, sexual violence, violent protests and assault, etc.

This is exacerbated by children's exposure to the unregulated violence found on various social platforms – similar to the video taken at Mbilwi Secondary School.

However, this is not to say that exposure to violence is solely a South African problem. The UN Children's Fund in 2017 found that violence is present in the lives of young people and adolescents worldwide. Such violence takes various forms and across several contexts.

It is important to understand that children are impacted by the interactions they undergo with their social and physical surroundings. A person's behaviour can be a result of dynamics between the individual and the context they are exposed to. The violence that happens at home and in communities spills over to our schools, so we should not be surprised by footage like that which came from Mbilwi Secondary School.

As South Africans, we need to unlearn some of how we deal with conflict and relearn positive conflict resolution skills as a way to offer positive influences to children.

As South Africans, should we be surprised when incidences of school violence occur, such as the one that took place in Limpopo?

Let us not forget: South Africa is still regarded as one of the most violent societies in the world. With this in mind, our society should be cautious. Children who experience violence should not be expected to act differently. Violent behaviour can be intensified by anxiety, especially during exam time.

It is only when we begin to appreciate the negative consequences of our violence and how it affects the next generation that we can aim to do better. We owe it to the next generation to take control of the legacies of our past, particularly the presence of violence in our homes and within our communities.

Prevention of school violence requires a holistic intervention that offers a broad consideration of problem areas. This includes social media regulation and individual, family and community interventions. Violence prevention must be approached from an understanding of socio-economic, historic, political, and environmental perspectives.

Family and individual factors contribute to the risks of youth engagement in violence, and in better understanding the need to address these risk factors while also building protective factors.

This would entail things like employing mental health professionals or psychosocial professionals in schools to assist with trauma faced by children in their homes and communities. The Department of Education needs to have an indaba to discuss possible solutions to the problem of violence in schools.

The indaba should engage pupils on issues of bullying and how to overcome bullying, this would offer a support structure for kids that struggle with expressing themselves without the use of violence. This needs a vigorous effort from the national government, civil societies, faith-based organisations, and the communities at large.

At an individual level, a safe space needs to be provided for young people to deal with anger and for resilience building. These spaces would encourage learning positive conflict resolution skills and better ways to deal with violence.

Working with families is also important as we realise the significant role the family institution has in shaping the attitudes and values of children and young people.

Parents need to be provided with parenting skills and a space to work through their traumas. CSVR's approach to working with communities is embedded in the belief that solutions can be found within communities.

We need to expand CSVR's thinking by providing spaces where communities can reflect and promote dialogues about introspection. The systems should be supported by school- based interventions that include efforts to draft school safety policies, which enforce zero tolerance to bullying and enforce wellness programmes such as: trauma management skills for teachers; access to debriefing and counselling services for both learners and teachers; peer-to-peer support groups; and strengthening school management teams.

Until we can proactively confront change at both a family and community level, we will continue to see incidents just like the violence we saw outside Mbilwi Secondary School.

This op-ed was originally published in The Star Early Edition.

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