On Monday, April 12, Lufuno Mavhunga, a 15-year-old female learner at Mbilwi Secondary School in Limpopo, was aggressively assaulted by another learner at school.
A video showing the humiliating violent attack was circulated on various social media platforms. Sadly, Lufuno subsequently died as a result of suicide.
During the bullying incident, bystanders (her school mates) watched, cheered, laughed and recorded videos of the incident. The alleged perpetrator (a 14-year-old female learner at the same school) has since been arrested by the police and charged with assault.
The school will institute disciplinary action against the bystanders who failed to assist and protect Lufuno. Her family, however, believes that the school did not do enough to support her after the incident was reported to the school principal.
The victimisation of Lufuno could have been prevented, and I will show in this article what can be done to prevent bullying in South African schools.
Suicide: the ultimate consequence of being bullied at school
Lufuno’s victimisation and her tragic death highlight the scourge, as well as the seriousness of the problem of bullying in South African schools.
School-based bullying has various consequences for everyone at school, but victims incur the most devastating, which include the development of psychological and emotional problems such as distress, damaged self-esteem, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.
If these problems are not addressed timeously or appropriately, it could ultimately result in suicide.
Although Lufuno’s victimisation was reported to the school authorities, the young victim did not receive any professional psychological counselling following her traumatic experience and the sharing on social media of the video of the incident. It seems that the victim dealt with the bullying mostly by herself and that the people who knew about the incident did not take her ordeal and anxiety seriously enough.
Bullying is gendered and complex: Girls as victims and as bullies
Bullying is a form of gender violence. It is based on the asymmetrical relations of power that are prevalent in our patriarchal society. The key feature of such relations is the assumption of authority by men and boys through violence against girls, women and femininities.
However, Lufuno’s victimisation draws our attention to the complexities of bullying and gender power relations among learners at school. Although boys and men often emerge as perpetrators of violence against girls and women, bullying in schools is a complex issue and girls are not always the passive victims of male violence.
Both girls and boys can become victims and bullies. Bullying is an expression of power, and girls too are capable of such expression through forms of violence against other girls and boys.
Indeed, a recent study on bullying among learners in a South African primary school highlights the vulnerability of younger boys to violence perpetrated by older girls at school.
Therefore, we must acknowledge that the victimisation of Lufuno by another girl is not something unique. Gender relations are dynamic, and we can see that girls too have learnt how to use violence to express power and to claim dominance over other learners in schools.
What needs to be done to prevent school-based bullying?
While the processes of the criminal justice system regarding Lufuno’s victimisation are under way, effective prevention programmes are also required to stop bullying at school.
Such programmes must be designed with the view to empowering everyone at school with skills and knowledge on how to prevent bullying from happening, and how to react appropriately when bullying is witnessed or reported.
To end bullying, the school should consider addressing bystanders, improving the availability of professional support services to victims, re-thinking the curriculum and establishing stronger partnerships with other stakeholders.
All learners at the school must be addressed in terms of the roles that they can play as active bystanders who are committed to ending bullying.
Bystanders must be empowered so that they know what bullying constitutes and are able to see when it happens and know how to intervene appropriately to stop it and protect the victim. They must know the seriousness of bullying and its consequences, and that they include suicide.
Bystanders must understand that posting a video or photo on social media, showing someone being abused, is in itself a form of bullying. They must be informed that they have a responsibility to report any form of bullying they witness at school to the school authorities or their parents or guardians.
When learners have reported bullying, school authorities need to take the reported incident seriously and act appropriately, especially in terms of supporting the victim. To reduce the risk of victim suicide, professional psychological counselling must be offered to the victims without delay.
However, the risk of suicide among victims of bullying can only be significantly reduced if proper resources and victim support services are available at the school.
The lack of such resources and services at Mbilwi Secondary School presents a major risk for victims to resort to suicide. The school should also explore possibilities of developing learning programmes that will foreground bullying and raise awareness about this serious issue.
Such programmes should be compulsory for all learners and must be designed to encourage them to speak out about their perceptions and experiences of, and anxiety about bullying.
However, the school cannot be successful in its efforts towards ending bullying if it acts alone. The violent behaviour that learners demonstrate at school reflects, to a large extent, the normalised violence within households and communities.
The school, therefore, must form strong partnerships with parents, communities, government, religious institutions and other relevant stakeholders to explore effective ways of addressing bullying at school. The school must engage productively with these different stakeholders, and such engagements should also include learners’ voices and perspectives on the issue of bullying and how to end it.
Dr Mayeza is a senior lecturer in the department of sociology at the University of the Free State