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Teachers face suspension over videos showing abuse of pupils in South Africa

Teaching staff in KwaZulu-Natal province under investigation as mobile phone footage implicating them in savage attacks on students circulates online

Seven teachers face suspension in South Africa after a series of videos emerged showing staff abusing students.

Elijah Mhlanga, spokesperson for the Department of Basic Education, said he was “shocked and disgusted” by the films, which are taken in KwaZulu-Natal, a coastal South African province.

A video shared online on Monday, which appears to have been filmed discreetly by a pupil, shows a teacher attacking two female students with a stick. The girls are heard screaming while their classmates laugh in the background. Police are also investigating reports of an alleged gang rape of a pupil by staff.

The clips, which have provoked outrage online, are the latest in a series of videos showing violence by teachers. Last month, a video surfaced of two students screaming as they are repeatedly struck on the back with a stick by a female teacher. Another video showed a student being lashed several times on the hand by a male teacher.

Dr Stefanie Röhrs, senior researcher at the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town, said that although corporal punishment in schools was banned 20 years ago in South Africa, violence remains widespread in classrooms.

A 2012 study by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention (CJCP) found that, of almost 6,000 pupils surveyed, 49.8% said that they had been caned or beaten by a teacher or principal. Teachers hand out punishment for anything from turning up late to class to getting answers wrong. Last year, a teacher was suspended for allegedly hitting children over their test results. According to those involved, pupils were punished according to their score: if they achieved close to 70% they were lashed once, while anyone who scored under 20% was hit six times.

Research by CJCP also found that 4.7% of students had experienced sexual assault, including rape, at school, either by another student or a member of staff; though the report authors warn that such incidents are likely to be under-reported. A study by Wits University in Johannesburg and Cornell Law School in the US found that a lack of awareness, weak implementation of the law and poor coordination between institutions means perpetrators can sexually abuse students without punishment.

The law banning corporal punishment in schools, introduced in 1997, is also poorly enforced, said Röhrs. “People can get away with hitting children in school,” she said. “The other problem is that although it has been prohibited for such a long time, teachers do not receive sufficient training on non-violent discipline and classroom management.”

This lack of guidance for teachers is compounded by a severe lack of resources in schools in rural or township areas. “Teachers are faced with large classes of 50 or 60 pupils. Some of the schools don’t have the necessary infrastructure. Pupils have to share tables and chairs,” said Röhrs.

Using violence to discipline children is seen as normal, and is common practice in the home, where it remains legal. “A lot of people say, ‘Well, I was beaten at home or by my teachers and I’ve turned out ok.’ It’s not seen as something that’s wrong,” she added. Campaigners calling for a change to the law are awaiting the release of a long overdue child protection policy, which is expected to prohibit violent punishment in the home.

Mhlanga said teachers found guilty will be dismissed. “The South African Council for Educators does go around provinces reminding teachers about their responsibilities regarding this matter and they have taken action against those caught administering corporal punishment on learners,” he said.

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