How bullying is an epidemic many South Africans still face
For many grown-ups, hearing the word “bully” might evoke the typical playground bully depicted on screen. Perhaps it’s the bigger boys who take advantage of the kid who’s small for his age, stealing his lunch at every breaktime. Or it could be the classic depiction of popular high school teenagers who subject the so-called “nerds” to torturous daily pranks, decreasing their victims’ self-esteem with every blow.
Journalist and author, Marion Scher, points to the reality that bullies come in all shapes and sizes. In her book Big Bully: An Epidemic of Unkindness, released earlier this year, Scher says: “There’s no time limit on bullying, and contrary to what many people think bullying doesn’t just occur at school. It’s rampant and affects every member of society from crèche to retirement. And it’s getting worse, not better, with very few people willing to talk or do something about it.”
According to Scher, there are different variations of bullies that exist in our society. The first and most obvious one, is the school bully. She cites disturbing statistics by the Unesco Institute of Statistics that one-third of the globe’s youth is bullied. “Low socioeconomic status is a main factor in youth bullying within wealthy countries, and immigrant-born youth in wealthy countries are more likely to be bullied than locally-born youth.”
The second category of bulling is the relationship bully. In Big Bully, psychiatrist Prof Renata Schoeman describes the relationship bully as someone who “often act[s] loving and supportive as a way of keeping you in the relationship”. Scher adds “such people use bullying in relationships to instil fear, victimise or harass, while gaining power by taking their partner’s power away from them”.
In SA, which falls into the top five countries worldwide with the highest femicide rates, such bullying is often the start of a progressive abusive cycle that leads to death. Scher says this sort of bullying or abuse “can slowly turn a relationship into a prison sentence”.
Workplace bullying is the third and oftentimes extremely mentally destructive form of bullying. In August, Business Day reported that one in four workers at Gold Fields’ South Deep mine had expressed that they had been victims of racism, particularly if they were women. This doesn’t seem to be isolated situation, as workplace bullying “has always and [will] probably always exist”, says Scher.
Sophia* is a woman in her thirties who has experienced workplace bullying. As she still works at the company where the bullying takes place, she has asked that her identity and the name of the business remain confidential. Sophia says that when she first joined the company during the Covid-19 pandemic, she was placed under the supervision of a woman named Colleen.
“When I first started working in her team, she, as is the case with most bullies, appeared nice enough. She was friendly, wanted to know lots about my life, was really interested in me as a person and as she was the one who was often dishing out the work, you don’t question things at the start of the job,” Sophia says.
Scher calls workplace bullying “one of the most cruel and hardest to live with” forms of bullying. She says finding a bully in the workplace can be tough, as they often appear to be charming and very nice upon first engaging with them. From her research for Big Bully, she found that “women were much worse bullies than men”, as they sometimes feel the need to prove themselves far more than their counterparts do.
Sophia says after working at the organisation for about eight months, she felt that she had taken on additional responsibility at her job and was in position to ask for a salary increase based on her work performance. She approached Colleen as her manager and asked for her advice, mentioning what her current earnings were and what she was thinking of asking for. Sophia got the salary increase she asked for and everything seemed to be fine.
“A little later on, I had made friends with other colleagues and one of them relayed to me that Colleen had been essentially gossiping about me and speaking very, very badly about me to the other members of our team on a communal channel that we have. She had disclosed my salary details to them and had made horrible remarks [such as], ‘oh, she’s so entitled. She’s barely been [working] here and she wants a new salary. Her work [is bad],” Sophia says.
Sophia then approached Colleen to discuss the matter which led to more blatant forms of bullying over the next three months. “She would throw so much work on my plate, she would continue to speak badly about me to other staff members, which [as] my direct manager, is extremely inappropriate. She was treating me with this really bad attitude and with this really passive-aggressive, and sometimes just aggressive, approach. She would send me these really underhanded emails and our relationship just deteriorated.”
Sophia says she felt she had no choice but to report the matter to the operations manager and the outcome of the complaint was not to her liking. “The disappointing part of it was that the solution for them was to move me over to another department. And to my knowledge, there has since never been a formal reprimand for Colleen. I felt as an employee that nothing happened. Bear in mind, I still work with this person. I’m not in her team or her department, but we still work together. And it’s created such a toxic culture in our business.”
According to Sophia, Colleen is bullying others, some of whom have expressed their situations to Colleen but are too afraid to file a formal complaint. Scher says that with unemployment being a stark reality for many employees, “people are terrified to do anything. They would rather stay in a miserable job than complain or leave”,
Erin*, who has also experienced workplace bullying in a corporate space, says the bullying took such a toll on her mental health that she felt she had no choice but to resign. “I am seeing a therapist now for the first time because I was at my lowest. And quitting has made me feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I am leaving there with zero backup plan because I would rather be unemployed than affected by that for a moment longer.”
While resigning or ending the work or school day is a way of finding even temporary reprieve from bullies, in contemporary times, social media has taken away the potential to escape such onslaught. The final category of bullying is cyberbullying, and with the advent of many social media platforms, this is becoming more and more insidious.
“People get at you all the time through social media and it’s intrusive and invasive in your mind. So, your mental health is most definitely affected. Suddenly, you are reading what other people are writing about you and you are taking that to heart,” says Scher. The inability to detach from such bullying can often lead to suicide because “people, often very young, don’t seem to be able to shrug off the massive dark cloud, someone else’s words about them has cast. The only way out is a final one.”
With each form of bullying seemingly increasing as years go by, what is the solution?
Scher says the bad news is that there is little that can be done to totally eradicate bullying. But one thing that can be practised by anyone at any time is kindness. With the risk of those being bullied often becoming bullies themselves later on in life, Scher's suggestion would be to conduct a national campaign that encourages people to simply be nice.
“Teach your children about being kind to people and accepting people for people. It doesn’t matter what colour, what religion, what race. I think the only way we can overcome bullying is to be nice, teach your children to have respect and teach [them] things like not excluding other children, being aware of the damage that they do.”
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