That TIME story that South Africa may outlaw spanking at home

On 30 July freelance reporter Melissa Locker reported for TIME Magazine that South Africa’s government, in cooperation with some notable children’s rights NGOs, is drafting a bill that would outlaw spanking at home. If the bill passes, South African parents lose their freedom to corporally punish their children, just like teachers did seven years ago. The article quotes Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini, from the pro-ban camp, who argues for child protection, and an anti-ban spokesperson from the Christian organization Focus On The Family, whose weird notion that for most children “the removal of pleasures or privileges is actually more painful than a spanking” is supposed to represent the anti-ban camp.


That’s about all the author chose to cover in the 200-odd word article. But there is a whole lot more to say about ‘spanking’ in South African homes, though.

To get an idea of what TIME is talking about, a bit of background and context does wonders. According to a study by RAPCAN, a Cape Town-based children’s rights NGO, 57% of interviewed South African parents (from all backgrounds, ages and income brackets) smacks or spanks their children with their hands. Thirty- three percent use a belt or other object. Corporal punishment, as presently condoned by South African law, means inflicting “moderate and reasonable chastisement on a child for misconduct provided that this was not done in a manner offensive to good morals or for objects other than correction and admonition”. In other words, the parent or care taker gets to decide whether his physical violence is in accordance with acceptable corrective intentions and with the morals he himself deems ‘good’ to positively shape the child’s behavior. But ‘spanking’, the seemingly innocent term TIME chose for title, is only one part of the story. A story that also includes (and is certainly not limited to) “hitting children with a hand or object, kicking, shaking or throwing children, scratching, pinching, biting or pulling their hair, forcing them to stay in uncomfortable positions, locking or tying them up, burning and scalding” (some acts that the UN CRC include in their definition of corporal punishment).

TIME also forgets to mention that, because of its unique history of institutionalized colonial and apartheid violence, South Africa happens to be one of the most violent countries in the world, its injury death rate being twice the global average. Women and children are the most vulnerable to this violence. Current and accurate statistics on violence are difficult to obtain, partly because much of the violence happens within the homes and goes unreported. But research and reports by several NGOs and service providers give us a solid clue about the extent of the violence that children face. In 2012, for example, the mental health and trauma centre Ekupholeni, which is based just outisde Johannesburg, helped 501 sexually abused children, of whom 148 were between two and seven years old. And in 2011, the South African Medical Research Council organized a meeting on youth violence, which revealed that “for children of all ages, the apparent manner of death was primarily the scourges of violence and traffic – 35% and 20% respectively”. The data also showed that violence was responsible for 10% of children’s deaths. Over 30% of violent deaths of 5 to 9 year olds were caused by fire arms. Of overall youth violence, around 40% of deaths are said to be caused by sharp objects, blunt force objects and fire arms.

And according to UNICEF, between 2010 and 2011, no less than 54.225 crimes against children (younger than 18 years old) were reported. 84% of these cases involved violent acts against children by someone known or trusted by the child.

While it might be tempting for many to drop these numbers in a separate violence file, and treat the well-intended spank on the bottom by a parent or care-taker as a separate issue, the simple fact that both categories involve intentionally inflicting physical pain on children demands for the relationship to be taken seriously. Violence against children doesn’t take place in a vacuum.

Unlike what TIME’s choice of wording implies, these realities go way beyond the use of “a flat hand on a child’s bottom”. What this tells us is that a ban on corporal punishment is not about some nanny state being unhappy about the occasional ‘slap on the bottom’, but that a highly vulnerable group of citizens might finally get the legal protection against types of violence that is not allowed against adults.

Some have expressed their annoyance with this, in their eyes, inappropriate conflation of corporal punishment with violence. Others call the debate on corporal punishment needlessly polarized and propose that, rather than being ‘pro’ or anti, we might want to think about allowing limited forms of corporal punishment. With the harmful ‘flat hand on the bottom’ type of spank in mind, this seems a sensible statement to make. Until the boundaries between violence and acceptable corrective pain need to be set. (When does a constructive spanking turn into abuse? What does a responsible bruise look like?) To separate corporal punishment from ‘actual violence’ in a country where fatal violence is a reality in all too many households, and try to define what ‘acceptable’ physical harm actually means is not only an unachievable and undesirable undertaking, it also ignores the roots of corporal punishment and how it has historically intertwined with often lethal state violence. Corporal punishment was one of the many violent tools for the colonial and apartheid ruling class to instill discipline and maintain control. At white settler schools , for example, boys were (for a long time) disciplined physically to harden them and maintain white supremacy. Corporal punishment, then, can at least partly be seen as one of the left-overs of nearly 350 years of white minority rule, which shaped much of today’s normalized violence. And there are many more reasons, not just historical ones, to reject the idea that corporal punishment and violence against children can be treated in isolation. If you grow up in a world where pain is intentionally inflicted on others in order to correct them or to resolve some sort of conflict, chances are you grow up thinking you can treat others, such as your girlfriend, that way too. If the aim of spanking a child is to instill good morals in them, (and we understand good morals as non-violent ones), corporal punishment is likely to have the exact opposite effect. As Lorenzo Wakefield, a researcher and expert on children’s rights, wrote in reference to a recent study of the University of Witwatersrand “there is a strong link of convicted perpetrators of rape — especially those who raped young children under the age of three — who were all corporally punished when they were younger. Research has shown that children who are physically punished or humiliated are more susceptible to carrying out acts of violence in their adult years”.

And there are more studies that confirm this correlation. But this hasn’t convinced everyone that children need this kind of protection. Some have played the Christian card to contest the proposed ban, when others view corporal punishment as a cultural right. But since both culture as well as religion are a matter of interpretation (and culture is never static anyway), they can and have been used to defend the ban as well.

Khaye Nkwanyana worries that “if this law is passed it will represent the power of the resourceful lobbyist NGO that stands in range against the entire society. It will represent the will of the University of Western Cape against the entire South African society. And as active South Africans we cannot countenance such a tendency where those with money can impose their will and cultural choices to all of us”.

Which begs the question: who is part of this ‘entire’ South African society? Do children count too? Because, as we look at some recent numbers, about a third of South Africans is under 18 years of age. (Some say 0-14 year olds alone account for 28,4% of South Africans). So if we talk about the ‘entire society’, what is their place? Are they citizens or simply possessions of the entire adult society? And since the entire discussion is about their fate, who has asked them how they feel about it? Next to a few outdated studies that present some accounts by children who describe the degrading and abusive treatment they had suffered, the actual opinions of children are nowhere to be found in mainstream media.

Some teachers, on the other hand, put forward more instructive concerns by complaining that the ban on corporal punishment in schools has led to a decline in discipline. Which can either mean that corporal punishment is the only way of maintaining order and disciplining children, or that it is the only method they know.

Corporal punishment perpetuates South Africa’s crisis of violence. The proposed ban sends out a strong message that children are more than the possessions of their parents and that they have a right to the same legal protection from violence that is granted to adults. They also deserve the chance to voice their opinions, get represented in the media and participate in the debates that affect them.

Is a ban the answer to the violence that children face? Will it reduce the levels of violent young deaths? Or stop the well-intended smacks on the butt? Probably not. After all, despite the ban at schools, it appears to still be widespread there too. Which is why South Africa needs a serious campaign that educates entire society on alternative disciplining methods. Methods that, unlike corporal punishment, will teach children about desirable behavior in a constructive and effective way.

If the South African government takes it responsibility to protect its children seriously, it should intensively work with children, NGOs, care takers and teachers to develop, support and sustain campaigns that offer alternative, child friendly alternatives to corporal punishment. One NGO who works on positive parenting programs and develops parental guides is Childline South Africa. Their resources for parents can be downloaded here.

Further Reading