School Truancy: An Old Problem Which Requires New and Innovative Solutions

© Kamla-Raj 2013                                                                        J Psychology, 4(2): 79-85 (2013)

          School Truancy: An Old Problem Which Requires New
                        and Innovative Solutions
                                                  M. J. van Breda

   Department of Psychology of Education, College of Education, University of South Africa
                         PO Box 392, Pretoria 0003, South Africa
                 Telephone: +2712 429 4148; E-mail:
KEYWORDS Absenteeism. Dropout. Unsupportive School Environment. Disrupted Family Life

ABSTRACT School truancy is a known predictor of learners leaving school prior to graduation. In this study the author
explored the phenomenon of school truancy among grade 8 learners in the Metro East Education District of the Western
Cape in South Africa. The study aimed to examine the prevalence, nature and extent of school truancy in the specified
research cite and to offer guidelines to teachers in dealing with this serious concern. The study used a mixed method
approach and is based on focus group interviews with learners, a survey conducted by means of a questionnaire completed
by a sample of three hundred learners. Unstructured interviews were conducted with principals of schools included in the
study. The findings of the study suggest that school truancy is a fairly common among grade 8 learners in the educational
district concerned and appears to be closely associated with a host of interconnected and overlapping negative individual,
family and community risks factors. The study concluded that if truant behaviour is not addressed through a collaborative
approach taking numerous risk factors into account, it may have potentially disastrous effects not only for learners, but
also for their families and communities at large.

                INTRODUCTION                                   a good reason for the absence means by defini-
                                                               tion that this form of behaviour is not truancy. In
    In recent decades, school truancy has attracted            view of these definitional problems which often
much interest in international research as well as             result in the generic term implying different things
policy discourse (Dalziel and Henthorne 2005;                  to different people, the author concurs with the
Reid 2005; Winslade and Monk 2007). Most re-                   description of school truant behaviour cited by
searchers agree that truancy is a serious issue                Blum and Davis (2010) as ‘any intentional and
facing all schools throughout the world from el-               deliberate absence from school without a valid
ementary through high school and is considered                 reason or permission from parents or the school’.
a leading predictor of dropout (Ovink 2010;                        The negative effects that stem from school
Puzzanchera and Sickmond 2008). When con-                      truancy necessitate a thorough understanding of
sidering school absenteeism and truancy, one of                the experience of truancy, including causes and
the key issues is to understand correctly the mean-            consequences, how truancy is perceived and in-
ing and definition of the terms. This may not be               stitutional responses. The author is of the opin-
quite as simple as it sounds considering the view              ion that understanding institutional and systemic
held by Reid (2005) that there are various types               responses to truancy, in particular, could be one
of school absenteeism including specific lesson                way in which schools could evaluate whether
absence, post-registration absence, parentally                 their efforts are achieving or not achieving re-
condoned absence, school refusal and school                    sults. Much of the extant literature points to the
phobia. This is where the confusion may begin                  stereotyping of truancy as deliberate school dis-
as for some researchers and education special-                 engagement and delinquent behaviour among
ists, specific lesson absence, post-registration               learners (Wright 2012; Henry 2010). However,
absence and parentally condoned absence do not                 what appears to be lacking is the voice of truants
constitute truancy. For others, this may consti-               reporting on problematic issues what could lead
tute truancy and are often re-titled as specific               them to begin disengaging with school. “Going
lesson truancy, post-registration truancy and pa-              truant” is far too often dismissed exclusively as
rentally condoned truancy.                                     an example of a leaner’s apathy toward educa-
    Thus, in some circles, ‘being absent from                  tion, not taking into account that this behaviour
school without good reason’ can be equated with                may be related to a variety of individual, family,
truancy, whereas in other circumstances, having                school and community factors.
80                                                                                      M. J. VAN BREDA

School Truancy and Related Risk Factors               schools are located in predominantly so-called
                                                      coloured1 and Afrikaans-speaking communities
    Capps (2003) argues that truancy often indi-      which are characterized by a high rate of unem-
cates larger issues in a child’s life. He further     ployment, poverty, gang activities, violence, and
cites that truants often perceive the world around    reliance on welfare support. According to school
them as unstable and confusing with many com-         attendance records observed by the author at the
ing from dysfunctional, unstable and insecure         6 high schools included in the study, it does not
homes. According to McCray (2006), children           seem uncommon for many grade 8 learners to
who do not feel a sense of belonging in a school,     have accumulated up to one 100 days of ques-
often seek acknowledgement, understanding and         tionable absences. This alarmingly high absen-
support elsewhere, which may result in truancy.       tee rate represents approximately half of the
    Monobe and Baloyi (2012) emphasized that          school year and seems to occur predominantly
there is currently a great deal of concern and dis-   among grade 8 male learners. A further motiva-
quiet about learners who deliberately miss school     tion why the study focussed on 8 learners only is
and certain classes daily. This anxiety is well       the high volume of referrals for psycho educa-
founded considering the repercussions of con-         tional support due to irregular school attendance
sistently truanting are very severe and suggest a     which are rife among learners in this grade.
wider social, psychological and educational prob-         Upon enquiring about measures in place to
lem. Socially, truants do not know what to do         address learner attendance in the research site,
with their time while they are away from school       neither a formally structured attendance nor anti-
(Hans and Erikson 2013). Some for example             truancy policies were found in place. Also lack-
merely wander around their neighbourhood              ing was a support programme for grade 8 learn-
bored, engaging in such meaningless and mo-           ers in facilitating their transition from primary
notonous activities as vandalizing public or pri-     to high school, a shift that usually comes with its
vate property.                                        unique challenges, opportunities and expecta-
    Heeyoung and Jaun (2011) report that two-         tions. This situation appears to be exacerbated
thirds of adolescent offenders begin their delin-     by poor school-parent and school-community
quent and criminal activities while truanting. In     partnerships and cooperation.
addition, truants are also at higher risk for sub-
stance abuse, gang involvement and violence.          Aims
The united Sates and the United Kingdom have
implemented policies and invested significant             In response to the aforementioned issues, the
resources to reduce truancy over several decades.     main aim of this article was to explore the preva-
Despite these significant efforts and millions        lence, nature and intensity of truant behaviour
spent, there is little evidence that any positive     among grade 8 attending schools in the research
impact has been made on school attendance and         site. A second aim was to provide practical and
in combating truancy (Maynard et al. 2013).           preventative guidelines to teachers in helping
    A study conducted by the Community Agency         them to combat truancy which is escalating at an
for Social Enquiry in the Western Cape, South         alarming rate particularly among grade 8 learn-
Africa (2007) found that teachers, principals and     ers attending the high schools in the research cite.
district officials felt that truant behaviour is
caused by risk factors such as poverty, transport                   METHODOLOGY
problems, illness, lack of parental involvement
and food insecurity. In her research findings,            This study was conducted mainly from a Posi-
Moseki (2004) cited that truancy is a major prob-     tivist and Interpretive Paradigm and employed a
lem in most South African township communi-           mixed method research design. To determine the
ties, linking this behaviour to a number of school    nature and extent of school truancy in the research
related factors, including the nature of interac-     site, data was collected via a focus group discus-
tion with peers and teachers, bullying, the con-      sion, a questionnaire and unstructured interviews
tent and delivery of the curriculum and its rel-      with school principals.
evance, discipline issues, boredom with school
and the academic ethos of the school.                 Instruments, Data Collection Procedures
    The research sites for this study are six sec-
ondary schools situated in Metro East Education         A focus group discussion was conducted at
District in the Western Cape, South Africa. These     one of the 6 schools included in the research.
SCHOOL TRUANT BEHAVIOUR                                                                                          81

The group comprised 6 learners who were iden-           empirical research. The common themes which
tified by their teachers in consultation with the       emerged from these interviews are presented in
author. The following selection criteria were ap-       a later section.
plied - firstly, evidence of skipping seven to 10
classes per week; secondly, their ages had to                                  RESULTS
range from 13 to 14 years and thirdly they had to
be in grade 8 at the time of the group discussion.         Content analysis was applied and the follow-
The purpose of the discussion was explained to          ing variables as measured by the questionnaire
the learners, including the privacy and anonym-         were identified and isolated as the being respon-
ity of transcriptions of their responses. The par-      sible for learner truant behaviour among Gr 8
ticipants were invited to be frank and detailed in      learners in Metro East Education District in the
their responses and could respond in the language       Western Cape, South Africa: influence of peers;
of their choice. The discussion, which lasted           lack of parental/caregivers’ involvement; educa-
about 60 minutes, ended once the facilitator felt       tors influence; and learners own thoughts regard-
satisfied with the responses. Recurring themes          ing school activities.
which emerged from the focus group discussion              Based on the outcome of the section of the
are presented in the section which covers the re-       questionnaire which measured interaction with
search findings. These themes were drawn upon           peers as reflected in Table 1, 29.3% of the re-
in constructing the research questionnaire.             spondents indicated that they engaged with peers
    The questionnaire consisted of 43 focussed          who work diligently in school, while 70.7% in-
questions and one open-ended question. The fo-          dicated that they readily associate with peers who
cussed questions primarily aimed at eliciting re-       tend to display irresponsibility, rebelliousness
sponses from participants which reflected their         and a negative attitude towards school and teach-
opinions of various influences in their life-worlds     ers. This outcome is supported by Capp (2003)
which might or might not encourage them to play
truant. These influences included the following         Table 1: Items that focus on respondents’ perceptions
aspects - the role of their peers, caregivers, teach-   of the influence of peers on their truant behaviour (%)
ers and their own self-images as factors which          Item                                    Stron- Uncer- Stron-
may or may not play a role in shaping truant                                                     gly tain gly dis-
                                                                                                agree/        agree/
behaviour. The open-ended question on the other                                                 agree          dis-
hand invited participants to indicate whether they                                                            agree
have truanted before or not, and to briefly moti-       1. Being present at school every        33.3    2     61.3
vate their response                                           day is very important for me
                                                              and my friends.
Participants                                            2. We encourage each other to           32.3    5     62.7
                                                              attend school.
                                                        3. We think that school is              34.3    2.3   62.7
    The questionnaire was administered to a                   important.
sample of 300 participants comprising 50 ran-           4. We like our teachers very            33.7    4.0   62.0
domly selected grade 8 male and female learn-                 much.
ers attending each of the six participating schools.    5. It is important for all of us to     33.3 21.0     45.3
                                                              participate in sport activities
Parental consent to participate in the study was              at school.
obtained through the schools concerned. Teach-          6. We like all our learning areas.      35.3  2.3     61.3
ers at the respective schools volunteered to as-        7. We attend all our classes.           32.3  3.0     64.7
                                                        8. My friends and I smoke.              55.0  0.7     44.3
sist with the administering of the questionnaire.       9. My friends and I take alcohol.       29.7 13.3     56.7
In order to secure honest and frank responses,          10. Some of my friends                   6.0 42.0     52.0
anonymity was maintained by making use of a                   occasionally take drugs.
numbering system, whereby a number was as-              11. In my circle of friends stealing    17.0 20.0     63.0
                                                              and disobeying of rules occur
signed to each learner’s questionnaire which was              occasionally.
recorded next to their names on a class list.           12. In my circle of friends, theft        9.0 24.3    66.7
    To obtain a school perspective, unstructured              occurs occasionally.
interviews were conducted with the six princi-          13. I hang around and mix with          29.3    0     70.7
                                                            friends who are hard working.
pals of the schools which participated in the
82                                                                                                   M. J. VAN BREDA

Table 2: Items that focussed on respondents’                  Table 3: Items that focused on respondents’ perceptions
perceptions of their parents/ caregivers’ involvement         of teachers’ influence on their truant behaviour (%)
in their scholastic activities (%)
                                                              Item                                 Stron- Uncer- Stron-
Item                                   Stron- Uncer- Stron-                                         gly tain gly dis-
                                        gly tain gly dis-                                          agree/        agree/
                                       agree/        agree/                                        agree          dis-
                                       agree          dis-                                                       agree
                                                              1. My teachers always give me        33.7    2.0   64.3
1. My scholastic performance is        33.0   16.3   50.7           attention at school.
     important to my parents.                                 2. My teachers treat me with         32.0    9.3   58.7
2. My parents always attend            33.7   10.0   56.3           respect.
     parent meetings at my school.                            3. Teachers always value and         27.0   24.7   47.7
3. The way my parents and I get        30.7    9.0   60.3           respect my contributions.
     on at home, motivates me to                              4. My teachers encourage me to       33.7    5.7   60.7
     work very hard at school.                                      attend school regularly.
4. My parents have a positive          27.0   28.3   44.3     5. My teachers always try to         33.3    5.3   62.3
     attitude towards my teachers.                                  make lessons interesting and
5. My parents and I often discuss      31.0    3.7   65.0‘          meaningful.
     my schoolwork at home.                                   6. I know most of my teachers        31.0   14.3   54.3
6. My parents expect me to obey        42.3   15.3   41.7           have my interests at heart.
     the rules that apply at home.                            7. I feel very comfortable to        32.7    6.0   61.3
7. My parents allow me enough          33.3    5.7   60.7           discuss anything with my
     time to do my homework.                                        teachers.
8. My participation in cultural        26.7   27.3   45.7     8. My teachers do not say any        27.0   32.7   50.3
     activities at school is                                        negative or bad things about
     important to my parents.                                       my work in front of other
9. My parents expect me to             57.3   12.0   30.7           learners.
     succeed in my school work                                9. My teachers do not really         33.7    3.0   63.3
     and to pass grade 12.                                          make unreasonable demands
10. Should my parents discover         57.0   13.3   29.7           on me.
     that I am not attending all my                           10. I will take any of my teachers   33.3    8.7   58.0
     classes at school, they will be                                as my role model.
     very upset about it.

                                                              ther demonstrated respondents’ extremely
who reported that learners who present with dys-              unfavourable and school experiences as well as
functional behaviour and become trapped in a                  learners’ perceptions of educators’ uncaring and
spiral of negative interaction with peers and                 authoritarian attitude of their teachers. Respon-
teachers, often start absenting themselves from               dents revealed that being subjected to undue and
school.                                                       humiliating punitive measures, discrimination,
    As indicated by the information in Table 2, it            rejection and antipathy displayed by educators
appears that respondents agreed that they do not
                                                              towards them play a significant role in their tru-
enjoy much interest and support at home indi-
                                                              ant behaviour.
cating that their parents are not involved in their
schooling. This research finding relates to what                  According to the information in Table 4, re-
is often portrait in the literature which attributes          spondents considered themselves largely incom-
truancy to weak parenting, lack of discipline and             petent to make adequate progress in school and
parents who not consider education as important               to eventually achieve their goals and dreams.
as they have apparently managed to survive with-              Generally there appears to be a significantly high
out it. Le Riche (1995) cites that some parents               level of doubt among respondents as to whether
do not even know the whereabouts of their chil-               they would achieve success in life, secure sus-
dren during the day. In other cases parents are               tainable income and be able to live comfortably
aware of their child’s absence from school, but               through the type of education obtained at school.
are unwilling to do anything about it, leaving the            Previous research in this regard conducted by
child to his/ her own devices.                                Reid (2000), confirms that a higher proportion
    As shown in Table 3, the results of this sec-             of truants than the normal school-age population
tion revealed that a non-supportive school envi-              have lower academic self-concepts, low general
ronment may result in causing and sustaining tru-             self-esteem and present with greater patterns of
ant behaviour among learners. The findings fur-               alienation from school.
SCHOOL TRUANT BEHAVIOUR                                                                                      83

Table 4: Items that focussed on respondents’                single parenting, family violence and anti-edu-
perceptions of their own thoughts and feelings              cation values demonstrated by many parents and
regarding school activities and attendance (%)
Item                                 Stron- Uncer- Stron-
                                      gly tain gly dis-
                                     agree/        agree/                    DISCUSSION
                                     agree          dis-
                                                   agree        Despite the small scale nature of the study, its
1. I consider all my classes         34.3    3.3   61.3     overall findings suggest that the problem of
     important to attend.                                   school truancy seems to be common among grade
2. Generally, I find schoolwork      31.7    4.0   63.3     8 learners in the research site. The evidence fur-
     very interesting.
3. All classroom activities are      30.7   17.3   51.0     ther indicate that truant behaviour originates from
     relevant to my everyday life.                          factors inside the child, in the child’s immediate
4. All the things that I learn in    29.3   21.0   48.7     environment extending to factors further away,
     school will help me to find                            which still influence the child, such as school
     work one day.
5. Through education obtained        29.7   23.3   46.3     problems and general social issues. In consider-
     at school, I will be able to                           ing the nature and prevalence of truancy among
     live a comfortable life one                            learners who enter high schools in the communi-
     day.                                                   ties concerned, this study has found that learners
6. I always feel happy with my       34.0    5.0   60.3
     test and examination results.                          may perceive the world around them as unstable,
7. Generally, I feel that I’m        33.7    5.3   60.3     threatening and extremely confusing. Further-
     coping very well with my                               more, evidence both from the literature and the
     schoolwork.                                            empirical study suggest that questionable absence
8. I’m sure one day when I have      31.3   16.3   51.7
     finished with school, I’ll                             among grade 8 learners may invariably be asso-
     certainly miss it.                                     ciated with unstable families, poor parental in-
9. Regular school attendance         32.7   16.3   50.0     volvement, inconsistent monitoring of learner
     will help me to achieve my
     goals and dreams in life
                                                            attendance by schools, lack of supportive school
10. Even if I had a choice, I        35.3    5.3   58.7     environments and low self-esteem exhibited
     would choose to go to school.                          among learners.
                                                                Persistent absence and truant behaviour may
   A thematic analysis of the relevant research             have serious negative repercussions, both for tru-
findings emerging from the focus group discus-              ants themselves and for society, which may in-
sion which fed into the questions of the ques-              clude criminality and the tendency for truants to
tionnaire included the following: discriminatory            endure significant problems in later adult lives.
behaviour, unfairness and a lack of interest dem-           This highlights the extent to which truants are
onstrated by certain educators towards learners             influenced by their environment and to what de-
mainly from low socio-economic background;                  gree their current and future challenging be-
learner anxiousness, embarrassment and fear of              haviour could impact on their environment. How-
exposure as a result of scholastic underachieve-            ever, more worryingly, seems to be the apparent
ment; lack of parental support and interest in their        lack of attention to the underlying reasons for
schooling; bullying by older learners in the se-            learners’ truancy in the research site. This could
nior grades, administering of corporal punish-              be the most telling indication that educational
ment by certain educators and feelings of hope-             authorities, welfare societies and parents are not
lessness about the future which seems very bleak.           effortful enough in addressing this phenomenon
   The most common themes which emerged                     through a multimodal approach with emotional,
from the interviews with school principals in-              behavioural, cognitive and social components
cluded the following: unfavourable adjustment               across home, community and school settings.
of grade 8 learners to the general demands which
their new learning environment offer, a serious                             CONCLUSION
lack of support and parental involvement regard-
ing their children’s education and their future and            This study sought to promote an understand-
the domestic backgrounds of truant learners                 ing of the multifaceted nature of truancy in the
characterised by poverty, parent unemployment,              research site. It also brought to the fore that
84                                                                                     M. J. VAN BREDA

school truancy is a universal phenomenon and          which were reported earlier, the following pre-
that learners play truant due to predisposing in-     ventative measures are proposed for teachers to
trinsic and extrinsic factors. On the one hand it     combat truant behaviour.
seems as if problems in the school system, such           Truancy intervention strategies with learners
as difficult working conditions and a lack of sup-    who are chronically truant must focus on help-
port for teachers from the Department of Educa-       ing them become reengaged through the provi-
tion, contribute to the pressure teachers feel in     sion of educational experiences that youngsters
class. On the other hand, socio-economic prob-        themselves feel are safe, caring, academically
lems and problematic families create a reality        supportive interesting and relevant. Schools have
where educators are expected to handle be-            to become institutions where learners wish to
havioural and emotional problems in learners          attend and feel invited to acquire fresh knowl-
often without support from parents.                   edge and acquire new skills. Addressing learn-
    Truant behaviour seems likely to result in        ing difficulties ought to be included in all inter-
multiple negative consequences, not only in terms     ventions aimed at reducing truancy. In this re-
of learning outcomes, but also with regard to risky   spect, teachers can be equipped to identify and
behaviour such as drug abuse, theft, vandalism,       assist learners who are academically challenged
violent gang activities and school dropout. In        through in-service and pre-service training. In
view of the fact that truancy may play a salient      addition, teachers can embark on programmes
role in undesirable outcomes for early adoles-        where some learners are trained to become learn-
cents, the prevention of this behaviour is an ex-     ing mentors to assist peer who experience diffi-
tremely important topic for on-going research. A      culty mastering their learning material.
commitment to develop and test truancy preven-            Teachers should always endeavour to display
tion efforts is therefore imperative. Finally, this   a positive and empathetic attitude towards learn-
article has examined a few causes of truancy but      ers. Although learners may often act in a defiant
has focused mostly on the part played by the          and unruly way, they may want to change and
teacher and the school in dealing with this           improve. Therefore, teachers must keep in mind
behaviour. Although guidelines for teachers may       that every learner should be treated as a valu-
take us a certain distance in addressing truancy,     able, unique human being. This means that the
a holistic and wider approach is still needed to      teacher should strongly reject the unwanted
address this serious issue in the Western Cape        behaviour, but never the learner. Chronic truants
Province of South Africa with its distinctive so-     should be assessed to determine if a possible
cial and educational challenges.                      cause of their absenteeism is frustration with
                                                      school work, emotional problems, domestic dif-
           RECOMMENDATIONS                            ficulties or barriers to learning. Teachers should
                                                      set an example by attending school every day,
    This study highlighted the multifaceted na-       report to their classes punctually, create a pleas-
ture of truant behaviour among grade 8 learners       ant classroom environment, exhibit a friendly
in the research site. Addressing pathological is-     personality and maintain a positive working re-
sues which feature in truants’ home and societal      lationship with all learners in their classes.
systems remains a challenging task for teachers           On-going truancy prevention programs should
in these communities, which are plagued by so-        be established in schools and be ensured that
cial ills like unemployment, drug abuse and vio-      learners face firm sanctions for truancy by com-
lent gangster activities. Aside from poor coop-       municating to them that the school has a zero
eration teachers receive from parents, they are       tolerance for unauthorised absenteeism. Consider
not empowered to change policies, nor are they        learner capabilities by conducting special
able improve the dire socio-economic conditions       projects or particularly interesting assignments
of families. However, what is in their power is to    on Mondays and Fridays when truant behaviour
keep all these circumstances in mind when ad-         tends to be the highest. Keep accurate attendance
dressing inappropriate learner behaviour, includ-     records and revise class registers if needed in
ing patterns of unexcused learner absenteeism.        order to enable better recording of lesson atten-
Based on the above findings derived from the          dance. Good attendance should be noted or re-
literature study and the empirical investigation      warded by giving attendance certificates, pins,
SCHOOL TRUANT BEHAVIOUR                                                                                                  85

charms or attendance patches which can be sewn                  Daziel D, Henthorne K 2005. Parents’/Carers’ Attitudes
on jackets. Follow the attendance procedures of                      towards School Attendance. Research Report.
                                                                     London: Department for Education and Skills.
the school strictly. Follow up should be done by                Hans E, Erikson R 2013. Psychological factors behind
phoning parents of repeated truant learners and                      truancy, school phobia and school refusal: A literature
discussing the problem at hand. It is critical that                  study. Child and Family Behaviour Therapy, 35(3):
the parents of a truant learner assume responsi-                     228-248.
bility for this type of behaviour demonstrated by               Heeyoung K, Juan B J 2011. A tool for assessing truancy
                                                                     risk among school children: Predictive and construct
their child. Therefore, it is essential that teach-                  validity of risk indicator survey. Journal of Social
ers initiate and maintain cooperation between                        Services Research, 37: 50-60.
them and parents to make a shared commitment                    Henry K 2010. Skipping school and using drugs: A brief
for reducing truancy Schools need to use reac-                       report. Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy,
                                                                     17(5): 650-657.
tive and proactive approaches when dealing with                 Le Rich E 1995. Combating Truancy in Schools. London:
truant behaviour. For instance, parents could be                     David Fulton.
invited to participate in the drawing up of con-                Maynard BR, McCrea, KT, Pigott, TD, Kelly MS 2013.
duct policies such as school attendance and con-                     Indicated truancy interventions for chronic truant
duct policies. Schools need to arrange and con-                      students: A Campbell systematic review. Research on
                                                                     Social Work Practice, 23(1): 5-21.
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inform them about their roles with regard to                         Intervention in School and Clinic, 42(1): 30-33.
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                        NOTES                                        College in the Limpopo province. US-China Edu-
                                                                     cation Review, 1: 84-89.
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     The use of this term ‘coloured’ does not imply
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                                                                     Dissertation, Unpublished. Unisa, Pretoria.
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