Courage is fire and bullying is smoke (Benjamin Disraeli)
Arising from bullying that caused the tragic end of 15-year-old Lufuno Mavhunga’s life and many other students who have fallen victim to the terrible plight of bullying in our schools, this article commemorates those who have succumbed to the unnecessary attacks on their self-esteem, their lives, and their well-being. This article also supports those who are still victims of bullying in our schools as well as those who have survived.
On this day 45 years ago, students gathered to protest against the Apartheid government’s policies on education through the Bantu Education Act enacted in 1953 (Gukelberger, 2020). African students affected by this Act were forced to learn and be taught in the language (Afrikaans) of their oppressors and were often subject to a lower quality education, separate schooling systems and institutions.
An event that changed the history and the lives of South Africans forever
Thousands of students in Soweto embarked on a journey to the Orlando stadium where they would rally against the implementation of Apartheid education policies. On their journey they encountered many attacks from the Apartheid police, who fired live ammunition and tear gas at the peacefully protesting students. These actions caused a widespread student revolt against the Apartheid government, and eventually gained the world’s attention when images of the injured students and police were released by media the world over. This revolt would later pave the way for many other uprisings against the Apartheid government.
The act of bullying
Bullying can be defined as the ‘ongoing and deliberate misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical and/or social behaviour that intends to cause physical, social and/or psychological harm’ (National Centre Against Bullying, 2021).
As we remember the Soweto Uprisings, we remember how the Apartheid government had bullied and oppressed the black people of South Africa. We also remember those who suffered at the hands of power-hungry bullies that sought to dehumanize and control them. Finally, we remember those who were bullied in schools and those who lost their lives as a result. On June 16th, otherwise known as Youth Day, we are reminded of the importance of education and a supportive school environment to foster the necessary development to produce dynamic and industrious members of society. We cannot forget the significant role mental health plays in achieving this either.
One of the links between the bullying experienced under the Apartheid regime and the current bullying experienced in schools, is evident in, inter alia, parenting styles, patriarchal practices, frustration at the socioeconomic conditions, and the immense pressure in our communities. The result of these negative influences both historically and currently create a hotbed of mismanaged violence and anger as we struggle to cope with our thoughts and feelings, actively aided by all that is wrong in society. It is no secret that the historical trauma caused by the Apartheid, has caused an undeniable cycle of multigenerational trauma which manifests in the lives of our children and our adults daily.
The violence which erupted at Witbank Technical High School in Mpumalanga over racism is a stark reminder of this fact. The remnants of Apartheid are still alive today, embedded in how and what parents and schools communicate to their children about racial inequality and discrimination. This continues the cycle of bullying, violence, and racism.
Such messages can be relayed overtly or covertly, such as school governing bodies not acting fairly and decisively in dealing with racial or bullying matters, parents and schools allowing children to use hate-speech that their elders imbue in them, schools allowing the incitement of violence and parents just behaving badly. Children mirror our behaviour.
Parents have to be exemplary, and cannot resort to violence, intimidation and race-baiting and hatred. If they encourage violence and hatred against others, we can only imagine how these vulnerable children are being educated and socialised.
For this reason, it is important to understand the influential factors which cause and perpetuate violent behaviours, harm the mental state, health and wellbeing of survivors, sufferers and perpetrators of bullying, in all its forms.
The mental health of learners matters
School bullying occurs either within or outside of the school environment and manifests physically, emotionally or verbally (Department of Basic Education, n.d.). Studies on the consequences of bullying show that bullying affects an individual holistically; this means that an individual is affected physically, psychologically, socially, and academically. The physical consequences of bullying are more overt and present in the form of physical injuries, sleep disturbances and headaches (Rivara et al., 2016).
However, the longer lasting effects of bullying are on the mental health of the child and can present somatically (physically) in the child as well. Psychologically, bullying can lead to low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety which may result in suicide as we have seen in the case of Lufuno Mavhunga. In addition to victims of bullying experiencing its negative effects, studies have also found that the mental health of those who witness it are also affected by bullying. Bystanders who witness the bullying of victims may also experience heightened stress levels, anxiety, and depression (Evans et al., 2019). This is evidence that bullying affects us all in some way, even if we chose to ignore it. It is therefore imperative that parents and teachers become aware of the warning signs and act swiftly to prevent further acts of bullying.
Mental health practitioners play an important role in helping families and communities deal with the effects and trauma of violence by diagnosing factors influencing or causing violent behaviour, addressing the behaviour, and providing coping mechanisms and tools.
Psychological support in schools
The appointment of educational psychologists and registered counsellors in schools may serve to mitigate and prevent acts of bullying. Teachers are already overworked, with far too many learners in most classes which prevents the effective, rounded development of learners essential to a secure society. Teachers are also not usually trained to deal with psychosocial issues, which are rife in our schools. Our schools and our children reflect our society.
The engaged involvement of mental health professionals within the school environment could also assist in removing the pressure on teachers to deal with serious mental health cases, and provide the necessary counselling to those affected. It could also help to quickly identify perpetrators of bullying who may be at a higher is risk for more severe antisocial behaviours, which are alarmingly on the rise. Parents and educators are urged to be wary of the signs, follow the protocol set up by the Department of Education and seek counselling for affected learners.
Prevention is better than cure. Our children deserve better, and should not carry the hang-ups of their parents.
Useful Contact Details:
SADAG (South African Depression and Anxiety Group)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0800 567 567
Teen suicide prevention toolkit: https://www.sadag.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3146&Itemid=510#teen-suicide-prevention-toolkit
LifeLine South Africa
National Counselling Line for trauma counselling: 0861 322 322
You may also visit a local Lifeline office to set up a face-to-face counselling session.
Department of Basic Education
Website link to bullying article: https://www.education.gov.za/Informationfor/Learners/Bullyinginschools.aspx
Matshepo Setlaleleng – PsySSA Student Division Executive Member
Denisha September – PsySSA Student Division Multidisciplinary Chairperson
Muhammed Yaeesh Cassim – PsySSA Student Division Chairperson
Department of Basic Education. (n.d.). Bullying in Schools. Retrieved 5 June 2021, from https://www.education.gov.za/Informationfor/Learners/Bullyinginschools.aspx
Evans, C. B. R., Smokowski, P. R., Rose, R. A., Mercado, M. C., & Marshall, K. J. (2019). Cumulative Bullying Experiences, Adolescent Behavioral and Mental Health, and Academic Achievement: An Integrative Model of Perpetration, Victimization, and Bystander Behavior. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 28(9), 2415–2428. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-018-1078-4
Rivara, F., Menestrel, S. L., Prevention, C. on the B. and P. E. of P. V. L. for B., Board on Children, Y., Justice, C. on L. and, Education, D. of B. and S. S. and, Division, H. and M., & National Academies of Sciences, E. (2016). Consequences of Bullying Behavior. In Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy, and Practice. National Academies Press (US). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK390414/
Gukelberger, S. (2020). Youth and the politics of generational memories: The Soweto
uprising in South Africa. Ateliers D’anthropologie, (47). https://doi.org/10.4000/ateliers.12436
Definition Of Bullying | National Centre Against Bullying. Ncab.org.au. (2021). Retrieved 8