Maverick Citizen OP-ED

Activists demand an end to ambivalence about corporal punishment in schools

By Mila Harding and Boitumelo Masipa 28 January 2021

Corporal punishment has long been abolished yet some South African schools still use it. (Photo by Gallo Images / Daily Dispatch / Mark Andrews)

South Africa has a long and shameful history of institutionalised violence, including capital punishment, juvenile whipping and corporal punishment. Despite these being deemed unconstitutional, the violence persists.

Mila Harding and Boitumelo Masipa

Corporal punishment has been banned in schools for nearly 25 years but is still practised by many teachers. The response by the South African Council for Educators (SACE), and by extension the government, has mostly been characterised by “official ambivalence” – instances of corporal punishment often go unaddressed and thus there is a tacit acceptance that the current state of affairs will continue. Institutions such as the South African Human Rights Commission, the Centre for Child Law and SECTION27 regularly receive complaints about corporal punishment in schools.

SECTION27, therefore, seeks to challenge this official ambivalence and hold teachers, and the authorities responsible for overseeing their actions, responsible by challenging the decisions of the SACE to mete out abjectly lenient disciplinary measures to two teachers who committed particularly abhorrent acts of corporal punishment.

In recognition of its history of violence and the need to protect children, corporal punishment is prohibited in South Africa. It was technically abolished in schools in 1996, with the constitutionality of its abolishment affirmed by the Constitutional Court in Christian Education South Africa v Minister of Education. More recently, corporal punishment in the home was confirmed as unlawful, with the unconstitutionality of the defence of “reasonable and moderate chastisement” in earlier assault cases involving the “discipline” of children being confirmed by the Constitutional Court. In the case, Mogoeng CJ stated that “moderate and reasonable chastisement as a tool for discipline, cannot be retained at the expense of a child’s fundamental right to dignity”.

However, despite the ConCourt’s clear stance on corporal punishment, it is still widely practised across South Africa. According to Statistics South Africa (2020), in the General Household Survey, 2019, 6.8% of pupils nationally were subjected to corporal punishment in schools in 2019. This translates to at least one million who experienced corporal punishment in the 2019 academic year.

Corporal punishment is not just illegal, it truly has no redeeming features. The notion that it is “acceptable” insofar as it encourages pupils to behave does not hold up against the evidence. Corporal punishment is linked to various negative developmental outcomes in children – including an increased risk of depression, lower self-esteem, antisocial behaviour and increased aggressive tendencies (including an increased chance of perpetuating gender-based violence). Instead of encouraging good behaviour, corporal punishment is likely to urge violence and hostility. It is simply not an effective form of discipline. Even forms of corporal punishment that ordinary, well-meaning individuals may deem acceptable – such as spanking – have been linked to adverse developmental outcomes. In fact, many researchers and academics view the distinction between “acceptable” corporal punishment and unacceptable child abuse as largely semantic. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child considers that children “have an absolute right to human dignity and physical and psychological integrity”, and by “describing some forms of violence as legally or socially acceptable” the rights of children to safety and to be free from violence are gradually eroded.

When a teacher has assaulted a pupil there are three official processes that should be followed. First, the matter should be reported to the principal. However, if the principal is involved in the matter the incident should be reported directly to the relevant circuit manager or education district director. Form 22 will need to be filled out for every pupil involved. Second, the matter must be reported to the SAPS where an assault case will be opened against the teacher. Third, a complaint regarding the teacher must be lodged with SACE, which is required to carry out a full investigation and complete a disciplinary hearing. Importantly, parents and pupils may use all of these options at the same time. However, despite the ban on corporal punishment and these processes in place for reporting, corporal punishment is still rife in schools. 

In this context, SECTION27, representing the Centre for Child Law and the parents of two pupils subjected to corporal punishment, is challenging the sentences meted out to teachers by the SACE in two cases. In the first instance, a teacher beat a Grade 2 pupil over the head with a PVC pipe, which led to the pupil’s physical and emotional trauma. The teacher further threatened the pupil not to discuss the incident. In the second instance, a teacher slapped a pupil in Grade 5 across the head, causing an ongoing bleed from the child’s ear. Because of the trauma of the blow the pupil had to miss school for doctors’ visits, causing a great deal of stress and trauma. As a result, the pupil had to repeat the grade.

After SECTION27 lodged the two incidents with SACE, the council carried out a formal investigation in which the two teachers pleaded guilty to their misconduct. However, despite this and the extent of harm inflicted on the pupils and the trauma they suffered, a disciplinary panel decided to sanction the teachers with a mere R15,000 fine, of which R5,000 was suspended. SACE also struck the teachers from the educators’ roll but suspended this decision for 10 years on condition they are not found guilty of another misconduct in this period.

SACE is described as “the custodian of the teaching profession”. All teachers are required to register with SACE and are answerable to it. The objectives of SACE are to provide for the registration of teachers, promote their professional development and, most importantly, to “set, maintain and protect ethical and professional standards for educators”. SACE thus acts as a disciplinary body for teachers who have engaged in misconduct, including the use of corporal punishment, and is empowered to mete out sanctions such as fining teachers and removing their names from the roll. 

However, despite the prevalence of corporal punishment reported nationally in the General Household Survey, SACE’s 2019/20 annual report does not reflect the pervasiveness of the problem. It reports dealing with only 157 allegations of corporal punishment against teachers. This is down from 295 cases in 2018/19. The report does not reflect how many of these incidents were successfully prosecuted. However, a report by the Centre for Child Law (Promoting Effective Enforcement of the Prohibition Against  Corporal Punishment in South African Schools) notes that in SACE’s 2011/12 annual report, of the 525 corporal punishment cases received in that period, only 42 disciplinary hearings were finalised. Thus, it appears that far too few cases are being reported compared with the reported incidence, and only a negligible number are prosecuted. 

In its legal action, SECTION27 has asked SACE to provide all its records relating to the investigation of the two teachers and its decision-making process in terms of the sanctions given. SECTION27 also requests that the court remit the lenient sanctions SACE imposed back to the organisation for reconsideration on the basis that they were inadequate, particularly in deterring these or other teachers from continuing to perpetrate corporal punishment. Given the unlawfulness and severity of the two teachers’ misconduct, SECTION27 argues that SACE must consider more appropriate sanctions against them. 

Failing to punish teachers for corporal punishment properly continues to contribute to the general ambivalence around the issue. Teachers are largely aware that corporal punishment is prohibited by law. However, they are often not trained in, or aware of, the alternatives. Further, because the use of corporal punishment often goes unreported or unpunished, teachers are effectively being allowed to use it with impunity. It is essential that SACE recognises its duty to protect pupils from teachers who prove to be a threat to their safety in schools. It must act firmly and purposefully against teachers who engage in corporal punishment. In addition to training teachers in alternatives to corporal punishment, would go a long way in changing the attitude of official ambivalence SACE has shown towards the scourge in schools. DM/MC

Boitumelo Masipa is a communications officer at SECTION27. Mila Harding is a legal researcher at SECTION27.

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  • “It is essential that SACE recognises its duty to protect pupils from teachers who prove to be a threat to their safety in schools.” All good and well, but who protects teachers from pupils who prove to be a threat to their safety in schools?!? Teachers are often provoked beyond reason and often assaulted by pupils, who ‘know’ that they can basically do what they want and there will be no or little consequences for them.

  • There is no ambivalence. It’s illegal, whether provoked or not. Teachers who beat up students must be arrested and charged alongside students who beat up teachers. Teachers must charge or sue the state if they are beaten up by kids. I repeat, there is no ambivalence.

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