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Equal Education branch members from Thandokhulu High, and their fellow learners, are currently engaged in a brave struggle to secure a safe and dignified schooling environment for all learners at this school, sparked by numerous reports of sexual assault and corporal punishment by a teacher employed there. We regard the learners’ demands for a proper investigation, appropriate consequences, and accountability and transparency from the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) as just, legitimate, and urgent.

We urge Western Cape Education MEC Debbie Schafer to account to learners and explain why the teacher in question was not suspended from teaching while under investigation by the WCED. This failure of basic decency and good sense on the part of the WCED constituted a gross violation of the safety and dignity of the learner/s who were affected by the conduct of the teacher in question and have remained exposed to this teacher throughout the WCED’s investigation. It should be noted that the teacher remains under criminal investigation by the State for sexual assault, and is due to appear in court again on the 4th of October.

As the Thandokhulu learners’ statement reflects, the teacher’s continued presence in class has had humiliating and damaging effects on the learner/s who made the complaint, and has made other learners feel unsafe in their own school. It has also had a damaging effect on the relationship between the school and its learners. MEC Schafer and her department have put the school principal in an impossible position by failing to suspend the teacher, by failing to conduct a serious investigation, and by failing to respond to the learners’ request that WCED representatives come and address the learners on their investigation, its outcomes and the learners’ concerns with these.

The public should also be aware that the teacher in question was caught on camera hitting a learner with a belt just this week. That the teacher continues to act with such a sense of impunity is a serious indictment of the WCED.

We therefore encourage MEC Schafer and her officials to try and empathise with learners who are feeling vulnerable in their own school, and to humble themselves enough to come forward and engage directly with the learners, instead of hiding behind Spokesperson Jessica Shelver and communicating exclusively through statements to the media.

At this time, it is also important to remind MEC Schafer that Equal Education members have been asking her and her colleagues in the provincial government and in SAPS to work together and take school safety matters more seriously for several years now. Last year, EE members submitted a list of demands to the provincial leadership of SAPS and the MECs of Education, Social Development, and Community Safety that included the following demand:

The WCED must develop specialised, safe ways for learners to report rape and sexual assault:

–          Many learners who survive these experiences don’t know how to report such serious incidents or don’t trust that they can do so without being victimised or not taken seriously.

–          The WCED and other government departments need to enable schools to provide survivors with proper support to deal with post-traumatic stress.

To date, none of the leaders of these government departments and agencies have responded to this demand, or any of the other important issues raised by Equal Education members in the Western Cape. The events unfolding at Thandokhulu should educate the MEC and her colleagues as to why people in positions of power need to take learners’ voices seriously, even when it is not politically expedient.

EE’s social audit of 244 Western Cape schools proved that sexual assault and corporal punishment remain serious issues in this province. Despite our members’ many attempts to engage the provincial government and SAPS on these issues, honest and transparent engagement from them has not been forthcoming. We therefore remain unconvinced that the provincial government and SAPS understand these as systemic issues that need to be addressed urgently. Situations like the one at Thandokhulu will continue to unfold every single year until this changes.