Pupils from an uMbumbulu high school, who claimed to have been beaten with a plastic pipe by a teacher, were given a personal apology by the head of the KwaZulu-Natal Education Department, Nkosinathi Sishi.
Sishi, who visited the school on Monday, ordered an investigation into the teacher accused of meting out a hiding so severe that the pupils’ bruises were still visible days later.
While the SA Schools Act of 1996 banned all forms of corporal punishment, it has persisted in many classrooms.
According to the 2012/13 annual report of the South African Council of Educators, 24 of the 107 complaints of misconduct against KZN teachers were related to assault and corporal punishment.
Nationally, the council had received 182 such complaints.
The council is responsible for enforcing the code of conduct among teachers and has the power to strike off the roll those who breach it.
Provincial education departments are obliged to report their finalised disciplinary cases to the council, but the public may lodge a complaint directly with it.
On Monday, Sishi said the scope of the investigation would include establishing whether other teachers at the school were guilty of the same offence and how the principal and governing body could claim not to be aware of what happened when the “evidence was glaring”.
Sishi said he would be handed the findings in a week, when he would decide whether to suspend and bring disciplinary charges against the male teacher who is the focus of the investigation.
He said he felt it necessary to apologise to the pupils who had made the accusations because school was meant to be a safe and secure environment.
That the department had come to hear of the matter through the media, meant that its systems had failed, Sishi said.
“I can’t believe that we run a democracy that produces marks like that on children.”
Department spokesman Muzi Mahlambi said that corporal punishment seemed to be prevalent in KZN, judging by the number of cases reported. He could not say how many such offences it had investigated since the start of the year.
Allen Thompson, the de-puty president of the National Teachers’ Union (Natu), said teachers needed to be educated on alternative ways to instil discipline, and that unions and the department should be responsible for doing so.
He said there was no excuse for teachers to resort to corporal punishment, and that the majority of teachers were in control of their classrooms.
Thompson said that in many instances teachers were most effectively able to deal with an unruly child by calling in parents, but that some pupils had gone as far as trying to pass off friends as their guardians.