Durban - Mbongeni Mtshali, principal of Velabahleke High School in Umlazi, pulls an assortment of knives out of his top drawer, one at a time, all confiscated from pupils. He points to a simple wooden block, and asks me if I think it is a dangerous weapon.
When I shake my head, he slides out a hidden compartment to reveal a sharp knife.
“I don’t know half the kinds of knives here. We even have to monitor the use of scissors which are being used as weapons.”
Violence is endemic in schools in SA, with the recent stabbing and death of an Umlazi pupil only the latest in a rash of such incidents in the province this year
Mtshali, who has been principal at the school for 22 years, believes discipline is the key to controlling violence.
You can only successfully teach children if there is discipline he says. That and giving power back to teachers.
He’s cut in the mould of the principal played by Morgan Freeman in the 1980s movie Lean on Me, based on the true story of Joe Louis Clark, who takes over an inner city high school in New Jersey, where violence reigned – until Clark instituted a tough discipline policy.
Mtshali’s similar commitment to rules was quickly evident when we arrived to speak to him about violence in schools. Rain and hail was hammering down on the roof and while many schools had closed early because of the storm, it was business as usual at Velabahleke.
When I expressed surprise that the school was open, he responded quickly: “Pupils asked to leave early like other schools, but I said ‘no’. How can learning stop because it’s cold. Would we close for the entire year if it was cold every day? That made them keep quiet,” he said sternly.
An uncompromising approach maybe, but it seems to be working. The school is often praised by Education MEC Senzo Mchunu for being one of the top achieving schools in KZN.
It has maintained a pass rate of between 95 and 100 percent since 1996 with many pupils being recruited by top universities.
Of the almost 1 400 pupils at his school, many are going places.
“Our school was chosen to attend a conference at the University of the Free State. Only one school from every province was chosen. The chancellor offered two scholarships to my best pupils. My top 10 in Grade 12 are usually snapped up by universities.
“We produce engineers, professors, doctors,” said Mtshali, who received a Living Legend Award from eThekwini council for his commitment to education.
He said that past pupils always returned to pay tribute to their school and some even raised funds for holiday classes for Grade 12 pupils.
Mtshali recalls a former pupil who recently qualified as a chartered accountant. He remembers her coming to his office and crying from hunger. “I gave her money to buy groceries – and look at what she has achieved today,” he said proudly.
Mtshali is a formidable man with a firm hand on the running of the school, evident in his interaction with pupils.
Stopping one girl wearing a colourful jacket over her uniform, he asks, “And what is this?”
She says she was cold, but moves quickly to take off the jacket.
Mtshali tells her to keep it on, but reprimands her for not asking for permission to wear clothing that isn’t part of the school uniform.
The school runs on an inflexible set of rules. Arriving late is not an issue, even though school starts at 6am for Grade 12, and 6.30am for the rest of the school. Mtshali is there before then.
Pupils have half an hour after school to rest, before afternoon study for Grades 9 to 11, which runs from 3pm to 4.30pm. Grade 12 remains until 6.30pm.
Mtshali also started additional maths classes for Grades 8 and 9.
The headmaster’s office is adorned with trophies for academics, sports and cultural activities.
The confiscated weapons, which are piled up in his top drawer, overflow into a bag. There is an assortment of slings, pocket knives and an array of dangerous looking daggers. Unwrapping a tightly folded piece of yellow paper, Mtshali reveals two bullets he took from a pupil, saying they were unable to get the gun.
“We cannot search pupils every day. It is logistically impossible. Some responsible kids report pupils carrying dangerous weapons. But we don’t have time to play the role of policemen, we are overburdened as it is. As soon as we enter the gates, our duty is to teach.”
We are interrupted by a knock on the door.
It is Mtshali’s head of department, who after hearing some of our discussion, walks to the back of the small office and pulls bottle after bottle of alcohol out of a steel cabinet.
“We also took that from pupils. The road to self-destruction is smooth and made easy by youngsters who cannot make the right decisions,” Mtshali says.
Mindsets needed to change, Mtshali said, or lawlessness at schools would continue.
“Issues must be curbed before they spiral out of control. Because an older brother will take up the fight and it will escalate, when it should have been sorted out at school. Fighting is an ongoing thing.”
Recently criminals stormed the school and ransacked pupils’ bags in classrooms while they were in assembly. They were caught by pupils who were baying for their blood, said Mtshali.
“They wanted to kill them. I had to pacify them, pleading with them for my sake that we should rather call the police.
“The school violence situation has not improved, and it will not improve. The whole country is lawless, it’s everywhere, including schools. Schools are not exempt. Society is deteriorating and the situation is not going to improve unless there is the political will to embrace values and morals that will create a sound society.”
He said power had been removed from teachers and principals and placed in the hands of pupils.
“They can do anything to us, and where do we turn to? Pupils are quick to report us for anything.
“There can be no success teaching children unless they are disciplined. But discipline has ended. We can teach until we are blue in the face, but some children do not care,” he added.
Study looks at extent of violence in schools
The Grade 12 pupil, stabbed recently for the R500 he was carrying to pay for his matric dance, was buried last week. He is the sixth casualty of school stabbings in the province this year.
This week a provincial Education Department spokesman, Muzi Mahlambi, admitted that random bag searches in schools were netting “enough weapons to start a war”.
“Schools by nature should be centres of excellence, but weapons and drugs continue to be brought to schools despite security measures. That is why the MEC encourages unannounced police searches at schools. We find all kinds of drugs, and kids with guns and the most dangerous knives,” he added
Grade 12 pupil Mpendulo Mzulwini, 19, was stabbed in the shoulder and lower back in a classroom at Egagasini Secondary School in Umlazi by a 17-year-old classmate and a 23-year-old.
The national school violence study conducted by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention recently found that more than 15 percent of pupils (secondary and primary) had experienced some form of violence in schools. This extrapolates to more than 1 million pupils falling prey to violence in SA schools.
It further revealed that in secondary schools more than 80 percent of the assaults, sexual assaults, robberies or threats of violence were perpetrated by fellow pupils.
The youth Risk Behaviour Survey showed that 11 percent threatened or injured someone else with a weapon at school, with 15 percent admitting to carrying a weapon such as a gun, knife or panga one or more times to school.
Muntu Lukhozi, a spokeswoman for the Education MEC, said the department could not be at every school all the time, that is why they had school governing bodies who knew what was happening and should implement policies specific to schools to remedy the problems. - Sunday Tribune