The Riot at My School

In 2006 there was a riot at the secondary school I volunteer at. I found this out the day after I got here, when I randomly googled the name of my school. Since then, I’ve been poking around for information about the riot. It’s been difficult to get most of the story. I’ve asked some teachers, some learners, and even some community members about it. But all I’ve gotten have been broad strokes.

Today, I was filled in on the details.

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear this is not journalism. This is the story of events as recalled by a group of 12th grade students, who were 8th graders when the riot happened in 2006. It is not intended to be definitive or favor a certain side of the issue. I would love to hear what other people have to say about what happened. But all I have is one tale:

A teacher at the school was accused of being a witch. Witchcraft is taken seriously in South Africa. There was a rumor involving the teacher having been spotted at night, naked, doing some sort of witchcraft. Some students demanded she be removed from the school, but she was not.

So the students decided to toi-toi (definition 2). Toi-toi-ing is a vital part of South African culture. Toi-toi is what you do when you want something done, or when you’re on strike. You saw toi-toi-ing on the news if you saw footage of the striking public workers earlier this summer. For the Africans reading, we toi-toi in America, but not as much or as awesomely as South Africans (we’re usually too busy eating McDonalds).

Apparently, there was morning assembly (for you American readers, morning assembly is like homeroom for the entire school at once), and then after the assembly the students were informed by fellow students that there was another assembly. So the toi-toi-ing began. The accused teacher took refuge in the staff room, and the police were called to help her get away from the students. One police car showed up, but the students did not disperse. One of the police fired a shot into the air, but it did not stop the toi-toi-ing. The demonstration began to morph into a riot.

Windows were broken, the police car was vandalized, teachers’ cars (and a government car) were vandalized. Damage was being done. There were fires. More police came, and they began firing rubber bullets. The riot escalated.

For some reason, one police officer was not using rubber bullets. She fired a live round and hit a student. He died. The learners I spoke with vividly remembered the dying student. When that happened, the students dispersed.

For the record, on the Internet it states the student died from a rubber bullet to the head. I cannot say if the learners I spoke with were mistaken, or the information on the Internet was mistaken.

The students did not return to school for about two weeks. The riot made national news.

After the failed attempt to get the teacher to leave, some students went and rounded up students from other high schools in the area. They burned down the teacher’s house. The teacher was offered a transfer, but the students I spoke with did not know what happened to her, other than that she was not at home when the house was torched.

I don’t have much to say about this. I feel very safe at my school, and this happened years ago. I don’t feel it has any bearing on what work I do. And it’s not like there aren’t occasionally riots at schools in America. But it was something I felt necessary to share, because to me as an American it is very hard to accept that a fear of witchcraft could prompt such a reaction.

I cannot think of anything that would have caused a demonstration in my high school in America. We weren’t motivated enough.