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School violence is but a symptom — It was a matter of time

Violence now permeates most facets of our lives, including schools and homes, where people should feel safe. Recent fatal incidents of violence in schools prompt Lawrence Mduduzi Ndlovu to look at the uncurbed and developing grammar of violence.

A Forest High School student stabbed three fellow students on 3 June 2019, killing one and causing serious injuries to the other two. Sbonakaliso Nyawose, a maths teacher at Masuku Primary School, south of Durban, was gunned down in front of pupils and his colleagues as he arrived at the school premises.  In January 2018 a Grade 8 pupil was charged with murder after allegedly stabbing to death a teacher he accused of failing him.  

These violent outbursts have shocked South Africa but are not isolated.  The truth of the matter is that one of South Africa’s greatest crises is an ingrained culture of violence.  It has now reached breaking point.

Violence as a Language

For many, it seems unreasonable to argue that our extremely violent past is contributing to the social volatility experience too often these days.  The post-apartheid narrative emphasised, some might argue, our exceptional appetite for harmony or at least an absence of war. The truth of the matter is that it takes more than 50 years to reconfigure a nation that had violence as its norm for such an extended period.  

When the apartheid regime refused to listen, it caused the majority to adopt strategies of violence and destruction in order to get the racist government to take notice. Violence became the official language of apartheid.  

Violence became the official language of apartheid.  

The state, wanting to retain the apartheid state of law, also responded with violence and ultimately massacred many people.  As a result, there are more wounded people who have and are raising children roaming around our communities daily.  If you disagree with them you will be met with the most violent retort, which is incompatible with the minor disagreement that started the argument.  

Nothing illustrates this fact better than the road rage in South Africa.  A study was done by The National Injury Mortality Surveillance Systems, in partnership with the Medical Research Council and the University of South Africa on road rage in 2004 in KwaZulu-Natal.

The study showed that aggressive driving and road rage have become major contributors to what was then about 80,000 ‘non-natural’ deaths that occurred in South Africa each year. This is a clear indication that there are many who suffer from psychological damage due to past events. 

It therefore does not come as a surprise that, to this day, communities still use violence whenever they feel unheard; buildings are burned, roads are barricaded, vehicles are stoned, mob justice is exercised, and so the violence continues. 

Even the police sometimes use excessive force while trying to maintain order. 

The images of the violence that was meted out on students during the #feesmustfall protests, the death of Andries Tetane and the massacre of miners in Marikana are still etched in many hearts and minds of South Africans and beyond. This part of the social language has never changed.

… the death of Andries Tetane and the massacre of miners in Marikana are still etched in many hearts and minds of South Africans and beyond.

A young person growing up in South Africa will invariably experience violence at some point in their lives, whether it is happening around them or directed at them. The most frightening part of this reality is that even the home, which is meant to be a place of safety, is also a seedbed for violence. 

The home is where physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse femicides and homicides take place.  It is also the place where a child formulates their thoughts and feelings about a plethora of social realities.  Racists, homophobes, sexists and bigots of all extractions tend to formulate their opinions from the language used mostly in the domestic environment.  

The majority of school death cases involve males.  From the domestic and that same milieu emerges the macho culture, which raises men to understand that being a man is synonymous with violence and force.  As a result, there is the tendency of them being viewed as being devoid of notions of equality and human dignity.

The Slow Death of “Human Dignity”

The quest for a democratic dispensation in South Africa was underpinned by the knowledge that all human beings have an inherent dignity and are equal. In addition, all life should be treated with reverence and respect regardless of race.  

This important conviction for some strange reason did not translate in as strong a manner into the democratic dispensation.  

The extreme exposure to death, both personally and socially, has made many people view human life without the sacredness that was attached to it before.  Tied to this kind of thinking is perhaps the sequestration of the notion of sacredness in the religious sphere where religion is, sometimes, viewed an insult to public life.  

… people view human life without the sacredness that was attached to it before.

Many youngsters have no sense of the sacred and know very little about human dignity. They know about human rights but those rights are rooted in an individual, almost narcissistic, understanding about life.  If we consider all that has been said thus far, the picture of the young person emerging is one who is not empowered with language to express his anger, disappointment or hurt.  In addition, there is nothing, other than the threat of prison, stopping him or her from self-harming or harming others.

Other Social Considerations

Although this might seem speculative rather than factual, there is an argument to be made about the glorification of violent behaviour in society, for example, there is cheering for army troops with guns in national parades.   

In the media (cinema or drama) the evil person is always confident, smart and strong while the peaceful person is timid and often portrayed as weak.  The conquering of cities in games is by killing opponents.  The person who chooses to walk away from conflict is considered to be weak and a coward.  

Our society is skewed against those opting for peace.  Those who choose peace are often seen as being exceptions and with that they are lauded with peace prizes and accolades.  It is almost impossible for any child to think that they can be like Nelson Mandela— after all, Nelson Mandela was special.  

It is almost impossible for any child to think that they can be like Nelson Mandela

Apart from the obvious problems of crime and exposure to criminal activity, gangsterism has not been dealt with here, there are layers upon layers of issues that our young people are exposed to today.  

As each new dimension of the same problem emerges and evolves, it weighs heavily on society and eruptions are inevitable.  What we experience with the violence and murder among schoolgoing youth is the rupture beginning to show.  This is not just a policing issue, rather it is a multifaceted social problem needing everyone to get involved in finding solutions.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.