Maverick Citizen

CHILD RIGHTS OP-ED

Groundswell of opposition needed to end corporal punishment in schools

Groundswell of opposition needed to end corporal punishment in schools
There are a number of reasons that corporal punishment in schools continues at a rate that gives the impression it hasn’t been legally prohibited for 27 years. (Photo: Gallo Images / Daily Dispatch / Mark Andrews)

Staggering statistics show that eight out of 10 children in southern Africa continue to be subjected to corporal punishment at home and in school.

When the new school year began a month ago, children would have been looking forward to returning to class to learn, engage in arts and sports and socialise with their friends. 

However, data released by Statistics South Africa in February 2023 revealed that almost a million children experience violence in school, 84% of which is corporal punishment – ultimately painting a picture that many children may in fact have been fearful, rather than excited, of returning. 

A recent Unicef study indicated that eight out of 10 children in southern Africa experience corporal punishment at home. Even more terrifyingly, the true prevalence of corporal punishment at home and school undoubtedly eclipses even these appalling figures, given the widespread underreporting of abuse against children – especially when perpetrators hold institutional power. This means that children are not only being harmed at rates exceeding official statistics and studies, but that any reported “decreases” in cases are more likely due to children and their guardians feeling increasingly hopeless in the face of abuse which is ignored. 

Normalisation of violence

There are a number of reasons that corporal punishment in schools continues at a rate that gives the impression it hasn’t been legally prohibited for 27 years. One is the normalisation of corporal punishment in general – it is the most common form of violence against children globally. In the South African context – which is one of high levels of violence across the board which has its roots in apartheid – there is a specific and marked acceptance of violence against children by people tasked with their care. This includes educators. 

The normalisation of violence can often see efforts to eliminate corporal punishment hampered, deprioritised or forgotten – this year violence against children wasn’t mentioned in the State of the Nation Address despite the fact that, according to official statistics, a majority of children experience it. This calls for the government and other stakeholders to take its elimination even more seriously. That is why efforts by Centre for Child Law (CCL) to hold the South African Council for Educators (SACE) to account for systemic change through the courts are so important. These efforts initiate much-needed micro-changes that, cumulatively, could see the creation of a new normal within the school landscape. It is also why the SACE’s response to these efforts is so insidious and misplaced. 

Centre for Child Law and Others vs South African Council for Educators and Others

To elaborate on these efforts, in 2021 CCL, represented by SECTION27, brought a case against SACE, the body responsible for the maintenance of ethical and professional standards of educators and which disciplines educators falling short of their standards. 

Part of the relief sought by CCL and SECTION27, along with the Children’s Institute represented by the Equal Education Law Centre, is for SACE to develop its Mandatory Sanctions document to ensure it includes sanctions that educators who use corporal punishment are disciplined in a way that is meaningful and creates systemic change. This would include sanctions ensuring that educators are trained to use nonviolent discipline methods in cases where it is appropriate for the educator to return to the classroom. In the long run equipping teachers with these skills would go much further in the creation of a nonviolent society than SACE’s current disciplinary sanctions which only include options such as reprimands, fines or suspensions.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Beating disobedient children does not ensure discipline at schools – and it’s illegal

Unfortunately, while it is necessary that every stakeholder unequivocally supports reform that sees educators using nonviolent methods of discipline, SACE has instead opposed CCL’s relief in the Supreme Court of Appeal where the matter is being heard on 26 February 2024. Inexplicably, SACE agreed that nothing in its Mandatory Sanctions prevents it from imposing sanctions that train and rehabilitate educators who use corporal punishment and that it has in fact imposed such sentences in the past. But it simultaneously argues that for technical (and legally flawed) reasons it cannot be compelled to review and develop its Mandatory Sanctions to include those very sanctions it says it uses. In the same application SACE also opposes relief that seeks to set aside the egregiously lenient sentences handed down to two educators who used extreme violence against children.

Read more in Daily Maverick: SECTION27 appeals against ‘lenient’ high court judgment on corporal punishment

Why would SACE oppose relief to train educators to use nonviolent discipline when it says it relies on it from time to time? Statutory bodies regulating important professions hold significant weight and power. This means that the implications of SACE’s stance are worse than we might think. It sends a message to educators and the public that the use of corporal punishment will be handled lightly, which ultimately means it is acceptable. It also sends a message that where its sanctions are challenged by parents and the public, SACE will gear its financial and human resources towards defending those challenges rather than creating an underlying culture of nonviolence. 

Having been a democracy for 30 years, we see the strength of our constitutional values tested more often. This year violence against children was not mentioned in the President’s State of the Nation Address. It therefore stands to reason that we should take every opportunity we can, at every turn, to address the use of violence against children. DM

Anjuli Leila Maistry is an attorney at the Equal Education Law Centre. Before this she worked at the Centre for Child Law and Lawyers for Human Rights. She focuses on child rights, refugee and migrant rights and access to education. Daniel Peter Al-Naddaf is a candidate attorney at the Equal Education Law Centre. His interests include child safeguarding and refugee law. He previously worked at the International Federation of Red Cross and Crescent Societies.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Say What says:

    PARENTS!!! Here is the problem, while I have no doubt that there are educators out there that are vile – parents neglect to bring up there children with a shred of decency or respect for the fellow man. I would put money on it that if this single change came about we would see a reduction in GBV, crimes of all nature and there would be a marked improvement in all facets of life.

    Wonder if the authors have ever been exposed to what teachers are exposed to on a daily basis? Read a couple of studies and then assume the speak from an informed point of view….

    • Daniel Peter Al-Naddaf says:

      Hi there, thank you for sharing your view on our article! I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

      It seems to me that we agree on the most fundamental point – just as you said, many educators are under extreme strain in attempting to maintain peaceful, calm spaces, while ensuring they do not break the law by assaulting children.

      It is deeply unfair to expect overworked teachers to practice non-violent discipline without giving them the support or tools to do so. It is also unreasonable to hold schools – and specifically teachers – as the only entities responsible for violence against children. Combatting widespread violence, especially against children, requires widespread collaboration and societal changes.

      That’s exactly what we’ve argued here, and it’s what we argued on behalf of the UCT Children’s Institute at the Supreme Court of Appeal. You can find a summary of the arguments on our social media.

      To your question, I have unfortunately had significant exposure, both personal and professional, to many of the experiences of educators across South Africa and in Southern Africa. I also have extensive experience working for children, some as young as four years old, who are too terrified to return to school because of the violence inflicted by adults tasked with their care. It is not an experience which I would wish for anyone to have.

      In all these experiences, the use of corporal punishment was never helpful for the child, nor even for the adult who assaulted them.

  • Mokhele Mokhele says:

    While I am against any form of abuse, I am in full support of corporal punishment in schools. It is widely accepted AND encouraged across South African society hence it is practiced continually and openly regardless of the government making it illegal. You CANNOT let government dictate how to discipline your kids. Do that at your own peril.

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