FROM OPPRESSION TO EMPATHY
Slight of build, but strong in character, 19-year-old Akhona Mhluzi has a sense of pride that is apparent from her wide smile and her upright posture. Her confidence, she says, had to be built up over time because of the bullying she endured as a child. For many kids, school is a place for making great memories, but sadly, this wasn’t Akhona’s reality.
Born and raised in Gugulethu, Akhona and her younger sister (14) were raised by a single mom who, despite struggling financially, would always support her daughters.
“At times, life was difficult because we didn’t have much money. My mom didn’t have a stable job, only one as a cook for a community project who cared for people who were sick with Tuberculosis (TB).”
Due to the financial problems that the family faced, Akhona went to live with her aunt in the Eastern Cape for about three years.
“My mother says that she thought we would be better taken care of by my aunt. But that we would come back when it was time to start school, because she believed that education was better in Cape Town.”
As her mother promised, Akhona returned home when she was old enough to start school.
“I was very excited about going to school, that’s all I remember – feeling good about what I was going to do and learn because I had friends and cousins who always spoke about school.”
Akhona enjoyed learning new things, but socially she was quiet, and she didn’t have many friends. “I didn’t think there was anything wrong with the way I was, I just enjoyed reading and learning, it really wasn’t that much of a big deal to me.”
Shortly after Akhona began Grade Three, she met Dianne,* a girl in her class who was very kind to her. She was an extrovert and completely different to Akhona.
“She was a year older than me and different to me, however we became really close. We ate our lunch together, would play in the park after school and we even went to each other’s homes. We really enjoyed spending time together; she was my first real friend.”
However, over time, Akhona says that her relationship with her friend began changing.
“It all started in Grade Three. I would often help Dianne and the other children in my class with their homework , but one day she didn’t want my help, she just wanted my homework. When I told her that I would help her, but I would not do the work for her, she was not happy and began pushing, hitting and kicking me. It was the first time and it completely shocked me. I was scared and didn’t know what to do. She was my only real friend and she was doing this to me.”
Akhona says that the bullying escalated from there.
“It depended on her mood, sometimes she would send me to buy her food with my own money. If I didn’t do what she wanted, then she would punch me or slap me. One day she accused me of stealing her money. She came to my house and demanded her money, but I told her I didn’t have it. I think if my sister wasn’t home she would have hurt me badly. After that, she found out that a boy she liked had taken her money, but she never apologised to me.”
The bullying at school continued for Akhona from Grade Three to Grade Six.
“I became close to my teachers and the lady who ran the tuckshop, because I would avoid being with Dianne* during breaks.”
“Because she was always around me, my mother thought she was my best friend. It was a difficult time for me because I thought about telling my mom, but she was trying to raise us and I didn’t want to burden her. I tried to deal with the bullying as best I could – and that would mean avoiding Dianne*. When I would get home I would stare in the mirror and tell myself that I knew one day she was going to stop.”
Akhona says that by the time she was in Grade Seven, she felt she had had enough.
“I had a dictionary that my mom gave me. I know my mom worked really hard to buy it for me so it was really special. Dianne just came into class and grabbed the dictionary; she tore it and broke some pages. I remember shouting at her and she looked shocked because I had never spoken to her like that. I also hit and pushed her as I think my anger had been building. But because I knew what it felt like to be beaten I just stopped. I didn’t want to be like her.”
After that moment, even though Akhona continued being bullied, she felt empowered to stop it if she wanted. This, combined with outside help, propelled Akhona to her freedom.
“There was a social worker at my school and she heard what had happened. I’m not sure who told her but she found out and acted quickly. She approached me and asked me how long I had been bullied for. When I told her I had been bullied for four years, she was shocked and she told me we were going to fix things.
The following day Akhona, her mom, Dianne* and her parents were called to the school to discuss the incident.
“I remember my mom arriving at the meeting crying, saying that I should have told her about the way I was being treated. Dianne’s* parents did not come, so she sat there on her own. This was the first day I felt really sorry for her. The Social Worker told her the consequences of her bullying and that her behaviour would not be tolerated at the school.”
Following the meeting, Dianne* lessened her bullying but never totally stopped picking on Akhona. However, Akhona felt stronger.
“Seeing her alone in the office changed my view of her. She used to be someone I was really scared of because she was stronger than me, but she was actually just a girl, maybe even just a scared girl like me. I wondered why she was unsupported by her family and concluded that she was probably dealing with her home situation by acting out as a bully at school.”
“After primary school we went to different high schools, so I never really saw her. Sometimes I still think about her and I pray she finds her way.”
To conclude, Akhona said, “I think we all try our best, but unfortunately our best is often not good enough. People try to cause suffering because they themselves are suffering. Forgive them and ask for help that can assist both of you – the oppressed and the oppressor.
Akhona is an Amy Biehl Foundation participant.
*Dianne is not her real name.