School abuse

2009-05-06 00:00

There is something particularly repugnant about the sexual abuse of children by adults who are supposedly the custodians of their welfare. It is relatively easy for teachers to take advantage of their pupils in this way. They are in positions of authority. They can offer inducements and rewards. They are often respected and admired. It is not uncommon for schoolgirls to develop a romantic fantasy about a teacher, as seems to have been the case with some of the pupils in the current scandal at Umlazi’s Makhumbuza High School. From the pupils’ side too, there appears to have been an element of prestige attached to becoming involved with a teacher, together with a fear of the consequences of reporting the affair. It is for these reasons that the South African Council of Educators, with which all teachers must register, has a code of conduct that explicitly forbids sexual relationships with pupils.

If the allegations against the suspended teachers are proved true, then clearly they must be prevented from ever teaching again. Several aspects of the matter are, however, particularly disturbing. This was not a case of a single aberrant individual, but five teachers were allegedly involved. There must surely have been collusion between them, and the fact that teachers were willing to condone the unethical, immoral and illegal behaviour of their colleagues suggests a very warped notion of professionalism among the staff at the school. The extent of the abuse makes it all the more strange that the school principal was apparently unaware of what was going on and unwilling to investigate when it was reported to him.

Most troubling of all is the realisation that Makhumbuza is surely not an isolated instance. There is every reason to suspect that despite the profession’s code and the government’s legislation, physical and sexual abuse are widespread in the country’s schools. In this, the school system is a reflection of society at large, where violence and rape are hideously common as the powerful prey on the weak, whether that weakness be gender, age or poverty. Cleaning up the schools will be difficult enough, but the real problem is much larger.

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