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Demon of bullying

Phylicia Oppelt | 2012-02-26 01:52:16.0
Phylicia Oppelt is the editor of The Sunday Times
Image by: Sunday Times

A TEENAGER takes an electric wire, swings it around a beam in the house he has lived in for most of his life.

How does a 16-year-old figure out what the best way of dying is? Does he carefully consider the options before settling on hanging?

In the fast-ticking seconds before his death, did time deaden into a slow-motion tick tock ... tick tock ... tick tock into which memories whirlwind at a breathless pace?

Did remorse towards his mother and his stepfather, his siblings, swirl into those seconds - that he would leave behind a crater of grief and unanswered questions?

Did the punches and pulling, the jeers and mocking of four teenagers who had assaulted him the previous day at school ring like taunting bells in his ears?

Was the shame of being beaten in front of schoolmates the one thing that propelled David Hlongwane into an unthinkable void of despair?

Did he step onto a chair and kick it away to be strangled to a lonely, unnatural death because he felt so utterly bereft of hope?

What makes a child so despairing that he takes his own life at 16, instead of squaring his shoulders in determination to face whatever future - however tricky, however complicated - that lies before him largely unblemished?

The story of David Hlongwane from Soshanguve - published in The Times on Tuesday - is perhaps insignificant in the far greater, more important and busy scheme of our lives.

I've never been to Soshanguve; it's somewhere north of Pretoria, I am told.

But a child died there on Valentine's Day, that tacky commemoration of romantic love during which we artificially fawn over husbands and lovers. On that day, this child - a child of this country, an unforgivable symbol of what is so very wrong with this country and its education system - died.

The scale of bullying, of physical brutality among our nation's children is horrific. What makes it more uncomfortable is that this brutal pastime is not restricted to the far-flung anonymous townships and squatter camps of South Africa.

It is omnipresent - it occurs in the pretty, manicured confined spaces of the private school elite, the better-off neatness of former Model C schools, the frayed aspirations of lower-middle-class schools. It lurks everywhere, captured on smartphones, retold and replayed with a barbaric glee at lunch breaks.

Quite frankly, we are raising far too many bullies.

The Department of Basic Education seems to be somewhat flexible in its approach to bullies and the extent of the discipline that is, or should be, meted out to deal with them.

A female teacher had been slapped in the face by one of the teenagers who victimised David. He was suspended for a miserly seven days. Was that punishment appropriate to his crime?

The department's first instinct seems to be to protect the principal and teachers, hiding behind the convenience of investigations and offerings of counselling after the fact.

But bullying is not a phenomenon for which the department is to blame. While officials might be incompetent in dealing with the problem, David Hlongwane's death is a reflection of a brutalised society and parents that are just too lax about instilling basic values in their children.

As parents, many of us have abdicated responsibility for the rearing of our offspring. We expect other people or authority figures to take care of some pretty basic stuff - like manners, discipline and self-respect.

I've seen parents shout their children into submission, using the sharp anger in their voices to bend their daughters or sons to their own interpretation of discipline. The daughter might never learn the lesson that the parent wants to instil, but will certainly remember the fear that the voice filled with anger and hostility engendered. And so the daughter remembers how to instil fear and is given a lesson on making others fear her.

The same applies to parents whose application of discipline comes through corporal punishment. How does a child learn that there are better ways of negotiating conflict and disagreement? When a hard slap, a pinch or a fist can result in submission, why bother talking?

As I edited the story of David Hlongwane on Monday, the words from Ingrid Jonker's haunting poem, The Child, slipped into my mind.

In her seminal work, Jonker mourns the death of black children under apartheid, growing up under the menacing presence of soldiers, guns and violence.

Our children have been liberated from a nightmare past, but have to contend with demons of a different kind.

To paraphrase Jonker, this child, this David child, also just wanted to play in the sun in Soshanguve, perhaps grow to a man who treks through all Africa. He might have wanted to grow into a giant who journeys through the whole world. But the violence of other children became the pass that stopped him from doing so.

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