The pupils marched on Mpumalanga’s legislature, where they bared their buttocks and backs to show welts and raw wounds from beatings allegedly administered by Cefups president Simon Mkhatshwa. At least two girls also displayed sjambok bruises on their arms caused, they claim, by trying to defend themselves against "out of control teachers".
The pupils, led by Congress of South Africa Students (Cosas) activists, allege that Mkhatshwa and his handpicked dormitory monitors regularly beat students for minor infringements. Even teachers and other academy staff are, pupils allege, hauled before school assembly and beaten.
Mkhatshwa is no stranger to controversy. He was sentenced to three months jail or a R1000 fine in 1999 after being convicted for publicly sjambokking the academy's English teacher Lindie Maphanga. He also appeared in court in 1997 after allegedly squeezing and twisting a 19-year-old pupil's testicles in front of the school assembly because the youth had been caught sleeping in class.
The assault charges were dismissed when witnesses were too scared to testify against Mkhatshwa. "But he has beaten us so much now that we have to stand up to him. We don’t want the school to close and we accept that discipline is important, but no-one should be beaten the way we are," said Grade nine pupil Xolani Mkhwanazi.
Mkhwanazi was one of over 20 pupils who displayed welts and scabs from sjamboks beatings on their buttocks, backs and legs. "I was accused of drinking on school premises with a group of other boys. There was no proof and we were simply hauled into a room and given 30 lashes each. I cried. I now also have a reputation as a heavy drinker even though I wasn’t involved," said Mkhwanazi.
A 12-year-old pupil, who was too scared to be named, added that pupils were terrified of being locked into solitary confinement for up to two-days at a time in 'Simbaland'. Simbaland is a small dank and dark room next to the dormitory's leaking toilets. Urine and faeces tainted water seeps into the room, making it almost impossible to breath, the boy said, adding that 'simba' is the SiSwati and isiZulu word for faeces.
Pupils, including Mkhwanazi, are also regularly pinned down and stripped of their pants and underwear in public before being whipped with sjamboks. "It's humiliating. We are a co-ed school, but are abused and belittled in front of classmates and often have to watch while others get beaten. And it's going to get worse. The school has just ordered 15 new sjamboks," he said.
Provincial Cosas chairman Luthando Shongwe said the organisation was also worried about "dangerously unsanitary conditions" at the school, where hundreds of pupils are forced to wash with cold water in the open because of inadequate bathroom facilities.
Cefups had in addition, Shongwe said, failed to provide any of the advanced science or computer facilities promised in the school prospectus. The R18 600 per year secondary school caters to pupils from Swaziland, Gauteng and surrounding areas and boasts high pass rates. It claims to offer pupils one-on-one tuition in a "peaceful rural setting".
- But we are instead forced to live in dirty crowded rooms, said Mkhwanazi. "They cram 20 of us into rooms that look like something out of a Yizo Yizo prison cell. We don’t even have showers or hot water for washing."
Two teachers have resigned as a result of the abuse and two others were recently fired for allegedly refusing to submit to the discipline. A memorandum handed to provincial education head Dr Tim Mashinini demanded an immediate end to corporal punishment, improvements in sanitary conditions, an end to public humiliation of pupils and staff, proper hostel and dining facilities, and "value for money".
Shongwe warned that pupils expected immediate government intervention or pupils would resort to larger and more public protests.
Mashinini promised an official probe into conditions at the school and is scheduled meet with parents and teachers on Sunday. He stressed this week that corporal punishment was illegal in terms of the South African Schools Act. "Private schools have greater leeway to implement their own internal disciplinary regulations still have to obey the law. The school will have to answer some difficult questions if anyone has broken they law. But we have to wait until [government] investigates because this is currently only one side of the story," said Mashinini.
He also pledged to ensure that pupils at the protest were not intimidated and were allowed back into class. He said alleged threats that anyone who participated in the protest would be expelled were unacceptable.
Mkhatshwa instead simply closed the entire school and sent all boarders home on Monday afternoon. Pupils are expected to return Monday to hear government's investigation report. Mkhatshwa refused to comment on the allegations or allow photographs of the school when reporters attempted to interview him on Thursday.