South Africa: What Now After 'Spanking Children' Court Ruling

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9 October 2019

Cape Town — South Africa has become the 57th country in the world to prohibit the corporal punishment of children. This comes after the Constitutional Court's ruling that the common law defence of "reasonable and moderate chastisement" is unconstitutional.

allAfrica's Andre van Wyk spoke with Divya Naidoo, Child Protection Programme Manager for Save the Children South Africa, who shared her thoughts on the decision and the impact corporal punishment has on children.

How do you think the ConCourt ruling will change the behaviour of parents and caregivers in South Africa?

I'd like to illustrate my answer using the smoking laws of South Africa. When the law changed to prevent people from smoking in public, there was a public outcry but we haven't actually heard about people getting charged or anything terrible happening to them. What people can have is actual changed behaviour. So today, for example, you can sit in a restaurant and have a good meal without having to choke on the smoke coming from another table.

That's the same sort of thing we want to see - we want to see behaviour change. It's not an easy process that will happen - there has to first be attitudinal change and then eventually behaviour change. Ultimately, the law is aimed at getting that change to happen but it will not happen overnight. It will be a long process but organisations like Save the Children and other organisations are there to support people and get them to that process.

Freedom of Religion SA argues that the ruling means parents and caregivers may be prosecuted for assault, resulting in a criminal record and losing custody of the children if found guilty. What do you say to that?

The intention of this piece of legislation has never been to criminalise parents. It's not in the best interests of the child to have their parents charged and put in jail. The intention is to see behaviour change. So what we want to see is that parents start to think about what they are doing, think about their behaviour. We cannot just keep hiding behind "that's the way I was raised and therefore that's the only way that's worked, I've turned out fine and therefore it's okay".

We have to look at how do we do things differently. Within South Africa, we've come through a long history of apartheid and people had to make major adjustments to their behaviour and attitudes from how they were raised to what is the context we're in now. It's exactly the same thing here as well. We're not looking at rushing around to charge all parents who hit children. We're looking at getting those parents some good programming so that they can unlearn what they've been doing before and learn new ways of raising children.

Sweden was the first country to ban corporal punishment in 1979. Since then, and as of 2019, 57 United Nations countries have banned the physical discipline of children. South Africa, Kenya, South Sudan, Benin and Tunisia are the only African states to adhere to the policy. Given various African cultures' propensity for administering discipline through physical means, do you think those five states will remain outliers or prove to be examples to follow?

Using Sweden as an example, I think the key thing one must look at is that it's an extremely non-violent country, and you don't hear about the violent crimes that you hear about in South Africa. I feel if we break the cycle on the acceptance of violence, then we have to start with the small acceptable forms of violence. Now, something that one needs to remember is that corporal punishment was originally not a traditional African way of raising children. The beating of children was brought to this continent through missionaries and missionary schools so we need to get back to traditional practices of how children were raised where they'd sit down through story-telling and learn values.

That's the key thing that we need to look at - how do we go back to raising children in a way that's non-violent, how do we raise children so they understand what's happening? You see, it's very important that we don't just use culture in itself. Culture changes and if you look around within the African continent, look at how people dress... There are very few people who would everyday wear absolutely traditional wear. People have adapted to a changing way of life. Why are we clinging to this and hiding behind culture as the way to raise our children?

We've got the African Charter, we've signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child so those are the important commitments that we have made as a country and, as a continent, there are already a few other countries that have made that commitment so we need to look at what is our commitment, what do we want and how do we want to raise our children going forward.

South Africa has been a country that has played a key role in leading some things across the continent and so I'm hoping that through this ruling that South Africa will then inspire other countries across the continent, but we can only do that when we change our attitude and behaviour and we see the benefits of what that means for children and that's going to take a long time. We have to be patient and keep working at it, but the critical thing is that we have this piece of law that forces change in behaviour and attitude.

If you don't mind me asking, what is your personal childhood history of corporal punishment?

I think the reality is that most people actually experienced corporal punishment growing up and most would say, whether it's in the home or in the school, that 'I turned out fine', and generally, people do turn out ok. But the issue is that one never quite knows how much more One could have become. In my own schooling, I had this history teacher who used to do severe corporal punishment on children in our class and as a result, I hated history as a subject so when I went to high school and decided a career path, history was nowhere on my career list because I hated the subject by association, and who knows what I could have been today because doors closed because of my own experiences.

And it's the same way - people close doors for themselves and opportunities get closed, I remember one educator telling me as a child he was at one school and he loved singing and was so good at it and then the family moved and at the next school the music teacher used to use corporal punishment and he stopped completely, and he dreamed of being a great musician but that door closed because of that experience in childhood so that's the critical thing. People may turn out ok but when we look at the effects of corporal punishment it far surpasses your childhood into adulthood.

What are some of the long-term effects hitting can have on children?

When we look at it, there are physical effects - there are children that just feel mild physical pain - and then there are severe physical effects where children have suffered permanent disabilities or even death. Sometimes parents have argued it's accidental, that it wasn't their intention and all of that, but the point is children have died because they were hit so badly. Those are the physical effects.

The emotional effects and there are studies that have been done that found that constant corporal punishment during childhood continues into adult behaviour. Some of the effects have been found that children have learning disabilities. You must remember, when an adult is hitting a child, they close the opportunity to talk to the child and explain. Children have been found to have reduced vocabulary skills compared to those who are not hit because they're learning new words through that process of explaining what's wrong.

Children have low self-esteem because they're constantly being put down and being hit. Children experience difficulties in adult behaviour in terms of adult instructions because they tend to be more violent. Also, Save the Children commissioned a study in 2016, where we looked at what we call the "social burden" - the effects of violence - and so economists calculated the losses.

So for example if as a child I was constantly hit and then as an adult I'm so messed up I get angry at work, I keep staying away from work because I need to go and see a psychologist or I just keep getting sick, I have low self-esteem issues. They did a whole lot of calculations and for one year - 2015 - it was found the figure that they came up with was R238.58 billion. That was what it cost our country which was almost 6% of our GDP. Now think of how many houses you can build with that kind of money. Look at the cost of programming and parenting programming. It's far less than that amount.

What non-violent methods of discipline could parents use instead of corporal punishment?

At Save The Children, we've been rolling out parenting programmes, what we call Positive Parenting Approaches to Raising Children in a Non-Violent Way. Now, if you look at corporal punishment and other behaviour management methods like telling a child go sit on the naughty chair or go stand facing the wall or write "I will not be naughty" one hundred times, all of those behaviour management methods teach children obedience, whereas positive discipline approaches are methods that help develop children's' self-discipline.

Ultimately what we believe is that children want to do right, children want to comply but need to be guided and so positive discipline, positive parenting programmes help to develop that between parent and child so that children behave in a way not because they believe an adult is watching them but because internally it's the right thing to do and ultimately what we want is that we don't want children only to behave when there's an adult around.

We want them to behave especially when there are no adults around. Again, these help children as they grow up to make the right choices in life because they always understand and they trust intrinsically what is right and wrong and they do the right thing. If we look at today's society.. In the past, we were what I call the "Shut Up Generation" - parents said "be quiet' or 'shut up" and you'd stay quiet, you didn't say anything. If we want children today to prosper in the current climate, then we can't expect them to shut up and not ask questions and we have to able to expect them to be innovative, to be creative, to be thoughtful, and in order to develop that kind of child, to become the kind of adult that is required in today's society, then we have to let who they are come out and you can't raise them the way we were raised.

So that's the key difficulty that parents in today's time are struggling with because they were raised with corporal punishment - they were raised with being told: "you do what I tell you to do". They were raised that way but children today can't be raised that way if we want them to become the best people they can be.

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