The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education has contradicted itself on whether or not it is obeying two laws – the Sex Offenders Act and the Children’s Act – designed to protect school pupils from coming into contact with sex offence convicts at school.
The two laws require compulsorily that “anybody who employs anybody in any capacity to work with children has to screen their staff against the register before the appointment or shortly after.
While the Head of Department, Nkosinathi Sishi, admits that the department “had not vetted any of its more than 90 000 teachers” against the national sex offenders register, her spokesman, Muzi Mahlambi, insists all new teachers are being screened against the register.
In a written response to questions from the Democratic Alliance MPs in the provincial legislature, Sishi said the department had not cross-referenced the sex offenders register as they were “not privy” to it.
“The department does not have a copy of the National Register of Sex Offenders because access to the registry is limited to the registrar and those officials to whom such access has been delegated to by the registrar,” he said.
The department’s position was, however, queried by Joan van Niekerk, the director of Childline, an NGO, who described Sishi’s explanation as “indefensible” because the process of vetting teachers against the register was “simple and straightforward”.
“They are fudging the issue. The process is a very easy one. All they have to do is complete the required form and a copy of the staff ID and send it off. They don’t need a copy of the register. All they need is to request a copy of the form which they then send off to the registrar to vet their employee’s name against the register,” she said. “The problem is that they are not being responsible.”
Legislation currently only allows the registrar of the National Register of Sex Offenders full access to the database. Institutions, which employ people who work with children, are able to vet individuals against the database.
But Van Niekerk was emphatic the legislation was not the problem.
“It is a confidential register. And you are not allowed to know everybody who is on the register. You are only allowed to know your own staff and those that you employ. It is a very easy simple process. If NGOs with small budgets can screen all their staff against the register, there is nothing to stop schools from doing it,” she said.
“At Childline we have all been screened against the register and it is not a difficult process. The fact of the matter is they (education department) are not following it. It is very seldom that we come across a school that screens their staff, despite the fact that not only are they obligated to do so by the Sexual Offences Act, but (also) by the Children’s Act too.
A teacher at Durban high school was recently arrested for allegedly creating child pornography, thus creating suspicion that the law was not being complied with.
The teacher allegedly groomed some of his pupils and paid them large sums of money to pose naked and participate in filmed sexual performances.
His application for bail in court exposed a previous conviction of sexual assault dating back to 2002, with a 15-year-old pupil at another school where he had worked.
The DA’s provincial education spokeswoman, Mbali Ntuli, said the fact that the department did not know how many sex offenders were on the KZN registry was “unacceptable and extremely disturbing”.
“Certainly the current system leaves much to be desired with far too many loopholes for sexual predators to exploit.”
Ntuli said the Department of Education should be able to have access to the full database and she would push for her colleagues in Parliament to propose a private members bill to change the current legislation.
The MP’s position was supported by Vee Gani, chairman of the KZN Parents Association’s South Durban region.
“There is something terribly wrong when the department cannot have access to the full database. We are talking about teachers, some of whom may be on the sex offenders register working with our children. The department needs to have this information available to them,” he said.
“The process of having to go through to the registrar could be problematic and I do not see a reason why schools should not have full access to the (sex offenders) database.”
Contradicting his boss Department of Education spokesman, Muzi Mahlambi, said the register “was a new thing” and all new teachers were being vetted.
“The ones who will be off the hook are the old teachers. Anyone who joins the system now gets vetted,” he said.
Reminded that the act required all who work with children – even those employed before the legislation was enacted – to be vetted, Mahlambi said: “They get vetted and they tell lies. It is when you have sophisticated kind of a system that is able to track… that this person is telling the truth. People when they get vetted lie about their qualifications, lie about where they stay and all kinds of things.
“They lie about their names and everything. Everyone is being vetted and that the process had started two years ago’.
Confronted with Sishi’s reply in the KZN legislature on October 8, 2014, that the department had done no cross-referencing with the sex offenders register with teachers, Mahlambi changed track, saying: “If that is what the Act requires us to do we are going to do in accordance to what the Act is saying,” he said.