Corporal punishment starts to look like torture

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Johannesburg - Acts of corporal punishment that keep surfacing in schools, despite being banned, have little to do with instilling discipline in children and are taking on a sadistic, abusive nature.

Speaking at a conference on corporal punishment hosted by the SA Human Rights Commission last week, human rights lawyer Faranaaz Veraiva said the “hot spots” were the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, where cases of corporal punishment on the increase and required urgent intervention.

She said as severe as some cases were – in one incident, pupils were forced to eat their own faeces, and in another a girl was beaten and forced to sleep with a teacher – many went unreported.

Veraiva said the way corporal punishment was carried out debunked the myth that the practice was about correcting ill-discipline. She said the cases suggested corporal punishment was being administered through “excessive and uncontrolled use of force”, which often led to serious injury and even death.

Veraiva said there was no standardised way to deal with cases of corporal punishment.

The different organisations involved – the SA Council for Educators, provincial departments of education, district offices and law enforcement agencies – were not in sync, and did not “inform each other” when processing cases.

Veraiva said there were cases in which teachers were charged and found guilty, but their cases were dropped when going through education department disciplinary processes.

She said the fact that cases were dealt with in silos by the organisations contributed to them not being reported, because pupils endured secondary trauma when they had to recount incidents when giving evidence in various forums.

Of the cases that did go through all the processes, Veraiva said rulings were often subjective and lenient on teachers.

The University of the Western Cape’s Professor Julia Sloth-Nielsen, who is vice-chairwoman of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, said some cases “banally” referred to as corporal punishment could legally be classified as torture.

She said the fact that violence against children was tolerated, while an assault on a student by a lecturer at a tertiary institution would cause an outcry, showed children were not regarded as people.

“Would corporal punishment be tolerated (at a tertiary institution)? Would there be serious and immediate reprisals if a lecturer were to beat a student at a university? I think there would be an outcry of truly mammoth proportions. Indeed, I cannot recall ever hearing of violence in classrooms at this tertiary education level, in my 30 years of teaching.

“So what distinguishes educator responses to misbehaviour, aggression, laziness, unresponsiveness, lack of interest, and so on, in school versus the university? It lies in the fact that children are still not regarded as people, our progressive constitution and human rights framework notwithstanding. Children in the school system are simply not rights-holders until they turn 18 and exit,” Sloth-Nielsen said.

The Department of Basic Education’s James Ndlebe said the department acknowledged that acts of violence were taking place, and that teachers were becoming “increasingly distressed”.

“We believe that schools are a microcosm of the society, and what happens in schools is a reflection of our society,” he said.

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