The death of eight-year-old Nthabiseng Mtambo in February 2016 probably would not have made the news had she not died at a hospital in the Free State after her Grade 3 teacher had continuously beaten her on the head with a hose-pipe for not doing her homework.
A post-mortem later showed Nthabiseng had not died as a result of the assault, but of meningitis. In addition to the personal tragedy for Nthabiseng’s family and community, her death highlights once again the use of physical punishment in South African schools, despite it having been banned for almost 20 years.
Corporal punishment in schools has been formally prohibited since 1997 when the South African Schools Act came into force. However, teachers across South Africa continue to use it as a form of discipline. A national study by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention (CJCP) from 2012 shows that of the 5,939 pupils surveyed, 49.8% said that they had been caned or spanked by a teacher or principal as punishment for wrongdoing.
While certain provinces have made great progress in reducing corporal punishment at schools (rates in Gauteng, for instance, dropped from 61% in 2008 to 22.8% in 2012), the use of physical punishment has increased at schools in KwaZulu-Natal and now stands at 73.7%.
Small-scale studies, such as a 2015 study in Khayelitsha by researchers from Stellenbosch University, illustrate that — as in Nthabiseng’s case — teachers use a variety of implements to punish their pupils, including sticks, planks, pipes and belts, or, as one pupil put it: “Miss hits with anything.”
The type of wrongdoings that teachers use as an excuse for corporal punishment are — again as in Nthabiseng’s case — minor transgressions such as coming in late from break, not doing homework, making noise during class, and not knowing an answer or making mistakes.
This raises several questions: Don’t our teachers understand that making mistakes is part of the learning process? Are our institutions of higher education failing to teach teachers nonviolent forms of discipline? Or is it simply ongoing impunity that allows teachers to continue to beat pupils?
According to media reports, the South African Council for Educators (SACE) received 586 complaints against teachers in the 2014/15 financial year and the bulk of these were about teachers using corporal punishment. While SACE’s CEO responded that the council would “send a strong warning to educators”, in September 2015 the council had only temporarily suspended 18 teachers pending a hearing and struck another 10 teachers off the teachers’ roll indefinitely.
Does an investigation of less than 5% of the number of complaints sound like a strong message to you?
Corporal punishment at schools must be seen in the wider context of violence against children. Children are exposed to violence not only in schools, but also in their homes and in their communities. The first national study on violence against children found that 34% of children between 15 and 17 years report lifetime experiences of physical abuse by an adult caregiver; 20% of the same children reported having experienced sexual abuse and 23% reported exposure to family violence, such as having witnessed parents or caregivers hurting each other.
Although these numbers already point to an endemic problem, researchers believe they are an underestimation of the real prevalence of violence against children.
Violence against children is unacceptable no matter where and by whom it is committed. It is however of particular concern when violence is used by adults who are placed in a position of care over the child, such as teachers, parents and caregivers, and when it occurs in a place that should be a safe space such as the home or the school.
At least it seems as though things are slowly starting to inch forward. Earlier this year, the Human Rights Commission called on the government to legally prohibit corporal punishment in the home. The Department of Social Development is also supportive of a legal ban of corporal punishment in the home.
Public consultations on the Department’s draft Child Care and Protection Policy (the policy document which underpins planned amendments to the Children’s Act) in January and March this year showed that other government departments, civil society organisations and social workers also support a ban of corporal punishment in the home. They all agreed that such a law would be a welcome and necessary first step in protecting children from violence at the hands of their caregivers. They also acknowledged that parents and caregivers need support to learn about alternative, nonviolent forms of discipline.
Many people fear that a legal ban of corporal punishment will lead to parents being prosecuted for disciplining their children. This is clearly not the intention of the proposed ban. The aim of a legal ban is to protect children from violence in the home. The draft Child Care and Protection Policy proposes that parents who subject children to physical punishment should be referred to prevention and early intervention services. Prosecution of parents is generally not in the best interest of the child and will therefore be reserved for cases where prevention and early intervention services have failed or are inappropriate in the circumstances of the case.
This shows that the policy is aimed at prevention and early intervention. It is therefore critical that once the legal ban is enacted, the government makes available sufficient resources to educate parents and caregivers about children’s rights, the detrimental effects of corporal punishment and positive discipline. As for physical punishment in schools, perhaps in-service training of teachers in classroom management and nonviolent discipline would be a start? We would not lose anything by trying. DM
Stefanie Röhrs is a senior researcher at the Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town. The Children’s Institute is a member of the Working Group on Positive Discipline.