South Africa: Why Parents Beating Their Children is Not African Culture

(file photo).
10 October 2019

Cape Town — After South Africa's Constitutional Court upheld a high court ruling that declared corporal punishment at home unconstitutional, there were memes about African parents ignoring the ruling and beating their children anyway. That's the way they were disciplined and they turned out fine - that's the thinking.

But what about protecting children from violence?

Africa Project Coordinator at the The Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children Law reform in Africa Dr Sonia Vohito says the judgment has nudged the country closer to fulfilling its international obligations. This is just the beginning, she said, and looks forward to the implementation.

We want to know what you think. Tell us on our WhatsApp line  +27 65 704 9571. Is disciplining children with spanking or other force an African tradition?

"We're quite confident that it will change parents' attitude. We obviously heard strong reaction against the ban but in other countries where it was banned, the reaction was the same. Parents were very much against it because they were used to it. I mean, we were raised with physical discipline. So suddenly being asked to stop is like questioning our parents' parental skills but over time it will change just like in other countries," Vohito said.

Divya Naidoo, Child Protection Programme Manager for Save the Children South Africa, compared the ruling to the implementation of smoking laws, emphasising that it was a basis to encourage positive changed behaviour: "When the law changed to prevent people smoking in public, there was a public outcry but we haven't actually heard about anything about smokers facing major legal action. That's the same sort of thing we want to see - we want to see behaviour change."

Fears from parents who believe the legislation would be a means for parents and caregivers to be prosecuted for assault were dismissed by Naidoo. "It's not in the best interests of the child to have their parents charged and put in jail... 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 disciplining children," she said.

The ruling has marked South Africa as the 57th nation in the world to ban corporal punishment with South Sudan, Benin and Tunisia being the only other African states to also adhere to the policy. Naidoo said South Africa has the chance to be a vanguard for the continent in bringing about greater change. "South Africa has been a country that has played a key role in leading some things across Africa so I'm hoping that through this ruling the country will inspire others across the continent."

Naidoo added that, historically, corporal punishment was introduced to Africa by Christian missionaries and that the practice has become so entrenched in societies across the continent that pre-colonial means of discipline are not only methods that should to be remembered but applied.

"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 storytelling and illustrate and teach children value," Naidoo said.

Wessel van den Berg, Children's Rights and Positive Parenting Unit Manager at Sonke Gender Justice and MenCare Fatherhood Campaign Global Co-ordinator, offered a similar view. "There's quite good evidence to show that the use of corporal punishment in Africa was exacerbated by the slave trade and colonial influence on slave-dependent countries.  In South Africa, it was exacerbated by the previous apartheid regime. The fact that it is enshrined in some cultures does not mean it was originally so."

Van den Berg also believes the ruling establishes a framework for changing parents' behaviour. "In some of the countries around the world that have prohibited corporal punishment before, the change of law does not by itself immediately change behaviour. It usually requires a quite a large, well co-ordinated public education campaign to accompany the ruling for two reasons - first, to make the ruling known and understandable and secondly, to also educate parents and caregivers about what discipline should look like in terms of taking care of children," he said.

Responding to those that want a return to corporal punishment at school, Dr Vohito argues that there are no studies at the moment that can directly link better school performance but many studies show that it has managed to achieve only short-term positive corrective effect and long-term negative effects on children.

"Research says corporal punishment is actually damaging for students because they have issues with cognitive development, poor performance. It's actually one of the cases of children dropping out of school. Some students have died in the hands of their teachers , so bringing back corporal punishment in schools is not a solution. We often hear adults say, I'm who I am in life, I'm doing well because I've been beaten and that's how I did well at school. We tend disagree because we don't know how you would've been if you hadn't gone through that. Maybe you would have done better than what you did, " she said.

Dr Vohito's sentiments were echoed by Wessel van den Berg, who said: "There's evidence out that there that you can definitely see some links to anxiety and depression. There's also reason to believe that children who are exposed to corporal punishment regularly have lower educational outcomes than children who are not."

Some religious groups argue that the ruling infringes on their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.

Carol Bower, Director at Quaker Peace Centre dismissed this as "ridiculous and dishonest".

"It's interesting how people who say those kinds of things cherry pick their way through the Bible. It's interesting what they choose is usually around the status of women, something around the status of children and something around homosexuality. Those are the issues they focus on. It's dishonest, it's ridiculous. They are going to say you must do everything the Bible says, then why aren't they stoning their neighbors," she asked.

Bower also responded to people that believe the government has no right to interfere in the home is simply not true.

"The state is obliged, they have a duty to protect everybody against violence that's why we have a constitution. But again, if the State doesn't have a right to interfere in the home, then why do we have legislation against domestic violence? Because you can't do what the hell you like in your own home. You can do what you want in your home as long as you don't hurt anybody else, that's the difference," she said.

Isabel Magaya, Project Coordinator at the Centre for Child Law expressed her support for the ruling saying it will curb child abuse.

"Corporal punishment is not about parents but about children. But be that as it may, in the judgement, the justice emphasized that parents should have to exercise their freedom of religion in a manner that promotes or advances a child's best interests. We are essentially just saying remove that violent part but still exercise your religion," she said.

Magaya believes if South Africa adopts such an approach, it will be beneficial not only for children but for the society more broadly.

"There are better ways of achieving that same goal. I also come from a school where we were beaten, I was in boarding school and if it was time for study and people would be loitering around or chatting, we'd get beaten. So we were forced into behaving well, out of fear. Looking at SA specifically within the context of child abuse and high levels of violence against children, there are ways to discipline children without the use of violence."

She also said when children are exposed to violence in the home, there's a high possibility for a boy when he grows up, to become a perpetrator and for a girl when she grows up, to become a victim.

"If we look at the judgement in the context of the high levels of violence in South Africa, you'd be able to understand why we need that change, because we're hoping that 15-20 years from now, South Africa would not be as violent a society as it is," she added.

The financial cost of abuse

According to a 2016 study commissioned by Save the Children, which aimed to quantify the 'social burden' of abuse, violence against children cost the economy over R238-billion in 2015, about 6% of South Africa's gross domestic product at the time.

Professor Cathy Ward of UCT's psychology department said the study's findings showed that the scourge of child abuse must be dealt with as a matter of urgency. "These findings highlight how preventing violence ... is also an effective investment that will yield many social and economic returns for South Africa."

Positive discipline

Bower argues that physically disciplined children learn not that their behaviour is unacceptable and why, rather they learn only that they should avoid doing something while an adult is present in order to avoid the punishment. Beyond that, they learn that violence is the way to solve problems.

"If you have a crawling baby that keeps sticking fingers into the plug, you don't have to hit the baby but you cover the plugs. Otherwise you teach the child that it's wrong to be curious and wrong to ask questions and if you step out of line you'll get bashed. A two-year-old in a supermarket throwing a tantrum is embarrassing, but if you hit the child you'll only make it worse and you'll do so much damage to the relationship between yourself and that child. Hold the child, say you can't do this, it's not allowed. You can be upset, you can cry but you can't break things and you can't hurt people. I will hold you until you calm down.

"Positive discipline teaches children to think for themselves, to be self disciplined, to be compassionate and understanding of other people. To not be violent in their responses to disagreement with other people. To try and find ways to resolve issues that do not involve violence. In South Africa there's a default reaction to anything we don't like is to lash out," she said.

We want to know what you think. Tell us on our WhatsApp line  +27 65 704 9571. Is disciplining children with spanking or other force an African tradition?

AllAfrica's reporting on peacebuilding is supported by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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