Savvy school turns its gang cri­sis around

Af­ter a teen was stabbed to death, teach­ers and par­ents set about stamp­ing out the vi­o­lence

Mail & Guardian - - News - Bongek­ile Macupe

Sipho and Lethabo (not their real names) were good friends when they started high school in 2013 at Badirile High School in Khut­song, Car­letonville, west of Jo­han­nes­burg.

But three years later, the pair would turn on each other. Each joined a ri­val gang — Casanova and Delta Force — both of which op­er­ated out­side and in­side the school.

Lethabo joined Delta Force in his first year of high school. He does not know why. But for four years life as a gang mem­ber con­sumed him. There was noth­ing else. He caused chaos both in and out of school. He car­ried a knife to school to “pro­tect” him­self and, at the slight­est provo­ca­tion, wouldn’t think twice about draw­ing it and stab­bing the “en­emy”.

He told the Mail & Guardian this week that there were on­go­ing turf wars be­tween peo­ple who stay in the hos­tel and res­i­dents of Khut­song Ex­ten­sion 3. Grow­ing up in that en­vi­ron­ment means the younger gen­er­a­tions also be­come part of the an­i­mos­ity.

“If you were to ask me why we fought, I would not tell you,” he said.

“Our fights here at school would start over some­thing stupid. Some­thing would hap­pen over the week­end and on Mon­day we would start fight­ing here at school. We would draw out knives and stab each other,” he said.

He had be­come a nui­sance be­cause of his gang-re­lated ac­tiv­i­ties, which in­cluded rob­bing peo­ple, he ad­mit­ted.

But in June he de­cided to turn his life around and left the Delta Force gang.

“I got to think long and hard about my life and saw that be­ing part of a gang would jeop­ar­dise my fu­ture. I might end up with a crim­i­nal record, which would ruin my chances of even get­ting a job,” said Lethabo.

But be­fore his Da­m­as­cus mo­ment, he had en­joyed be­ing a gang mem­ber. “I en­joyed the attention I got from girls be­cause they knew hore bosso ke mang [who the boss is].”

Lethabo’s friend, Sipho, was part of ri­val gang Casanova for just over a year be­fore call­ing it quits.

Pre­vi­ously, the gang lead­ers had tried to re­cruit him but he was not in­ter­ested. But when one of his close friends was stabbed by Delta Force mem­bers out­side the school last year, he de­cided to join the ri­val gang to pro­tect his own peo­ple.

“Af­ter wit­ness­ing that, I had no plan but to join the gang in or­der to help them and pro­tect them be­cause they were younger,” he said.

“Our older broth­ers gave us home­made weapons and they would say we need to pro­tect our­selves be­cause we are not safe at school.”

Later, he would be­come a leader of the gang in the school. But be­cause of the nu­mer­ous fights he was in­volved in, he was of­ten sus­pended from school, he said. This did not sit well with his mother, a sin­gle par­ent.

“This year I’m in ma­tric and I could not af­ford to miss out on school and also I needed to be a role model to my younger sib­ling, so I de­cided to cut ties with the gang. It was not easy but had to be done,” he said.

Even though the friends have quit gang life, they say they don’t feel safe be­cause they no longer have the pro­tec­tion of the gang.

On top of it, they are seen as sell­outs for rekin­dling their friend­ship even though they were in ri­val gangs.

Prin­ci­pal Lucky Motl­ha­bane told the M&G that when he ar­rived at the school four years ago, it was a bat­tle­ground for gangs.

In 2015, for ex­am­ple, a Casanova mem­ber was stabbed in the face by a mem­ber of a ri­val gang in the school toi­lets. He needed 12 stitches to his face.

But the ri­val­ries peaked last year and re­sulted in one pupil’s death.

Sa­belo Phahlindlela, a grade nine pupil, was stabbed on Septem­ber 1 out­side the school­yard and later died in its sick­room.

He was a mem­ber of the Casanova gang and was al­legedly killed by a mem­ber of the Delta Force gang. This came af­ter an al­ter­ca­tion dur­ing school hours that led to a fight af­ter school.

School gov­ern­ing body chair­per­son Elias Mkha­bela said the in­ci­dent was a “wake-up call” for the school.

“It was a ter­ri­ble in­ci­dent and it’s some­thing I would never want to wit­ness … We said to our­selves that one life is too many and we will never wit­ness the death of a child again, es­pe­cially as a result of gang­ster­ism,” said Mkha­bela.

It has been a year since that fateful day and the school is proud that it has man­aged to turn the gang­ster­ism sit­u­a­tion around.

Af­ter the in­ci­dent, par­ents met to de­cide that the school needed to en­force its dis­ci­plinary pro­cesses and to stop treat­ing the is­sue of gang­ster­ism with kid gloves.

“We now ap­ply our poli­cies and, once a learner trans­gresses, it does not mat­ter how big or how se­ri­ous the mat­ter is, we in­vite the par­ent so that we re­solve it. If a learner who be­longs to a gang brings a knife and stabs others, we sus­pend them. We ap­ply pol­icy and that has helped the school. Things are better now. The mes­sage is get­ting across,” said Mkha­bela.

When the sit­u­a­tion was still un­con­trol­lable, Mkha­bela said pupils would carry dan­ger­ous weapons such as home-made knives and pan­gas.

The school now per­forms ran­dom searches, is in­stalling CCTV cam­eras and works closely with the po­lice. There have been no acts of gan­gre­lated vi­o­lence this year.

Motl­ha­bane be­lieves that, had it not been for Mkha­bela and his strong pres­ence at the school, they would not have had such suc­cess in tack­ling gang vi­o­lence.

“In fact I do not think with­out his help, his pres­ence and his vis­i­bil­ity the school could man­age to be where it is to­day. He is very strong and hands-on,” he said.

The gang vi­o­lence has had a neg­a­tive im­pact on the school, and sev­eral teach­ers have been booked off for stress-re­lated ill­nesses.

Motl­ha­bane says three staff mem­bers have been booked off since last year, when the pupil died.

But the in­ter­ven­tions of the school have seen sev­eral gang mem­bers re­form­ing, such as Sipho and Lethabo. Be­sides its tough dis­ci­plinary mea­sures, the school also of­fers coun­selling to gang mem­bers and alerts them to the fu­ture im­pli­ca­tions of their cur­rent ac­tiv­i­ties.

Motl­ha­bane says this kind of in­ter­ven­tion has helped a great deal and the school is now be­com­ing a normal teach­ing and learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment.

Badirile might have man­aged to fight the scourge of school vi­o­lence, but it’s still preva­lent in many schools.

This Wednesday, a pupil from Solomon Mahlangu High School in Modi­molle, Lim­popo, stabbed and killed a grade 10 pupil at the school.

This latest in­ci­dent fol­lows videos that cir­cu­lated on so­cial me­dia in­volv­ing pupils from Norkem Park High School in Kempton Park, east of Jo­han­nes­burg. One of the videos shows a pupil car­ry­ing a gun while fight­ing with another out­side the school­yard. The in­ci­dent led to 10 girls and two boys be­ing sus­pended from the school.

Days ear­lier, another hor­rific video sur­faced on so­cial me­dia, show­ing a boy re­peat­edly kick­ing a girl at a school in KwaZulu-Natal.

The in­ci­dent hap­pened last Novem­ber at Siy­athuthuka Sec­ondary School in Inanda, north of Dur­ban. Lin­dokuhle Dube (19) was handed to the po­lice by his fa­ther and is cur­rently out on bail.

The on­go­ing vi­o­lence in schools has led to teacher unions call­ing for tougher mea­sures to be im­ple­mented at schools to curb vi­o­lence.

The Na­tional Teach­ers Union called on the basic ed­u­ca­tion depart­ment to install metal de­tec­tors and em­ploy armed se­cu­rity guards at schools.

The South African Demo­cratic Teach­ers Union has mooted es­tab­lish­ing spe­cial schools for ha­bit­u­ally vi­o­lent pupils.

The teach­ers’ union made the call two years ago — sug­gest­ing that pupils who show signs of be­ing bul­lies and who are vi­o­lent or ag­gres­sive should be placed in spe­cial schools to be coun­selled by peo­ple trained in psy­chol­ogy.

Truce: Ma­tric pupils (above) who be­long to ri­val gangs de­cided to re­form, putting them in more dan­ger, but prin­ci­pal Lucky Motl­ha­bane (be­low) re­mains de­ter­mined to keep knives and pan­gas at bay. Pho­tos: Oupa Nkosi

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