By Ayanda Mhlongo, Miranda Andrew and Bheko Madlala
Teachers and parents have welcomed the news that teachers have the right to search pupils for weapons and drugs without needing a search warrant.
A spate of deaths and attacks by pupils on fellow pupils at schools across the country in recent weeks has shocked South Africans, but until a few days ago provincial education authorities and teachers said they felt there was little they could do.
Worried politicians and senior civil servants have now stepped in to reassure schools that they have the power to act.
On Monday Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka added her voice to the issue, calling for police and schools to work closely together to make them safe.
Mlambo-Ngcuka was speaking at Ohlange High School, outside Durban on Monday after her visit to her former school as part of the Global Campaign for Education, aimed at increasing public awareness and political will to make education a reality for all.
"Our belief is that crime will be combated if schools have better relations with police.
"It is for this reason that the cabinet has endorsed the 'adopt a cop' programme," she said.
She said the programme was aimed at facilitating better relations between schools and police stations as part of attempts to curb crime in schools.
She stressed that it was imperative that schools work closely with law enforcement authorities to curb the crime wave spreading across the country.
On Monday the education department said teachers may search anyone on school property without a warrant.
"There is an odd belief that schools and teachers have no right to search learners," said Duncan Hindle, the national education director-general.
"We have never suggested that it is incorrect to search learners. There is in fact an obligation to search to protect the safety of other learners," he said after a meeting with nine provincial department heads.
Hindle quoted two paragraphs from the Schools Act which state that a police official, a school principal or a delegate of the principal was allowed - without a warrant - to search school premises or any person on the premises on suspicion of the presence of illegal or dangerous objects.
KwaZulu-Natal School Governing Bodies Association chairperson Reginald Chiliza said he was entirely behind the decision to search pupils without a search warrant.
"We think this is a brilliant decision and fully support the idea as long as the rights of children are not violated in any way."
He said being able to search pupils would help provide safety for other pupils following the increasing number of violent incidents at schools in KwaZulu-Natal.
"And this would also cater for teachers who are also in danger if children are carrying guns and knives to school," he said.
South African Democratic Teachers' Union spokesperson Sipho Nkosi said the union supported all initiatives aimed at reducing crime at schools.
"We have been very concerned about our schools and the safety of pupils and teachers. This move will help a lot but we still need the intervention of the police.
"At some schools teachers could be harassed if they search the pupils and so the police need to assist teachers with this," he said.
Nkosi said he believed that teachers, pupils and parents needed to work together to reduce crime.
"I have seen that in those areas where these three bodies work together, we hardly receive any reports of crime.
"Teachers and school governing bodies need to also involve the Learner Representative Councils (which represent pupils) in the programme," he said.
Nkosi said the education department would have to ensure that all schools are properly fenced so that access is controlled.
Children's rights organisations have come out in support of pupils being searched at schools but raised objections against police conducting the searches.