Around this time last year, a Learners’ Representative Council leader at Badirile High School in Khutsong near Carletonville on the West Rand called for the reintroduction of corporal punishment at schools.
His statements, alarming as they were, went largely unnoticed, probably because they were drowned out by what seems an inexorable scourge of corruption and criminality that pervades our country almost completely today.
Commenting on the gangsterism that was affecting learning and teaching in the township, Daniel Mamela said: “I honestly blame the government for taking away corporal punishment because since the government took it away, there has been a lack of discipline within learners.
“Learners now know they can do whatever they want because no teacher has a right to dare touch them,” said LRC president Daniel Mamela.
On Tuesday - just over a year later - King Goodwill Zwelithini made the same remarks when he bemoaned the banning of corporal punishment at schools.
He called for its reinstatement, saying the rod would “make learners perform well”.
“This thing of not disciplining our children is letting us down,” said Zwelithini, speaking at a meeting of principals and school governing bodies of two districts in KwaZulu-Natal.
Ordinarily, in an era where cases of teachers meting out corporal punishment to schoolchildren, often with the worst brutality imaginable, Zwelithini’s utterances would have sparked wide outrage and condemnation. But they seemed to pass with a whimper. No protestation, no dissent, no outcry, whatsoever - even from government officials who flanked Zwelithini as he roared.
Notably, KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education deputy director-general for curriculum development, Dr Barney Mthembu, in his determination to feign ignorance, opted for a different topic, imploring principals to ensure there was no repeat of the group copying scandal which rocked the Class of 2014.
Apart from scant articles in a few publications, there wasn’t much sound and fury about Zwelithini’s remarks. While he may come across as insensitive to the physical and emotional pain inflicted on children by teachers who see corporal punishment as the only deterrence for wayward behaviour, Zwelithini should not be dismissed as an overzealous and self-righteous monarch whose statements signify nothing.
His views underscore what many believe: that errant children must be spanked. As the saying goes, spare the rod and spoil the child, many might say.
The unpalatable truth is that 20 years since corporal punishment was abolished in South African schools, many teachers continue to dish it out, often for the most mundane of offences. Many children have been maimed, some have been killed and others carry physical and emotional scars.
According to the SA Council of Educators (Sace), the latest statistics indicate that corporal punishment topped the list of 593 complaints nationally, with at least 265 cases. The Western Cape led the pack with 286 of the overall complaints, followed by KwaZulu-Natal with 89, Gauteng 70, Mpumalanga 48, the Eastern Cape 29, the Free State 27, and North West and Limpopo 25.
But the government, and education authorities in particular, would never have imagined that it would be so commonplace today in our schools when they outlawed corporal punishment in 1997. So why is this the case?
On the face of it, it is because teachers are still grappling with alternative ways to chastise errant children. But there are far deeper problems that lead teachers, just like parents, to spank their children.
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga believes this is because teachers, just like pupils, suffer from emotional pressure emanating from the violence in communities. “Schools are just a small representation of communities, and where there’s high levels of violence in communities, it translates into the schools.
“So you find that teachers find it difficult to manage kids who are socialised through violence and are not able to take instructions which are peaceful,” she says.
“Where there’s a high level of violence (in communities), teachers themselves, as members of the community, know that if they have to discipline children, what they know best is violence.”
But while Dr Shaheda Omar, the director of clinical services at Teddy Bear Clinic, agrees with Motshekga, she believes that teachers, just like parents, would do better, in the face of indiscipline, failure to perform tasks and even unruly behaviour by children, to restrain themselves.
“Working with adults and parents, they say they don’t know how to manage with children, and when they lose their temper (and administer corporal punishment). It is about their anger, their feelings, and not about correcting the child’s behaviour.
“It is about their (parents’) inability to restrain their impulse, the inability to sit back and think. So one needs to look at reasonable forms of chastisement,” says Omar.
She believes that violence against children often mirrors entrenched patriarchy, because in some communities where there is a breakdown of family structures resulting in single parent-headed families, masculinity becomes the norm as the teacher is seen as the learners’ father figure.
“In our patriarchal systems and structures and toxic masculinity, I think there’s lot of fear because the power dynamics are often that it is the father who assumes the responsibility of inflicting the punishment”
She emphasises the importance of distinguishing between spanking, assault and reasonable chastisement. “When you talk about reasonable chastisement, there’s no intention to harm, to inflict physical injury, emotional injury, subjection to any form of humiliation.
“But when the discipline becomes excessive with an intention to hurt the child, then we are looking at assault, and that constitutes a criminal offence
“But (even at home), if it is beyond reasonable chastisement, then the parents will also be charged for physical assault.”
Omar says that when administering chastisement to children, it is important to consider the physical developmental stage and phase of the children.
She warns of the unintended consequences of applying corporal punishment, especially when spanking becomes a pattern, and so frequent and severe.
“This is always catastrophic because there are physical wounds that are inflicted and the emotional scars remain.
“Yes, we might get that immediate response where the child may not repeat that (mis) behaviour, but (the response) is simply out of fear, and not because the child has appreciated the corrective orientation. So, it becomes a form of fear, and your child goes on to become the same parent as you and adopts that assaulting behaviour.
“Spanking plants seeds for later violent behaviour and doesn’t always work. Children end up suffering anxiety, post traumatic stress, depression, suicidal tendencies, substance abuse and violent behaviour towards others.”
She thinks that discipline “does not mean, or is not equal to, inflicting some level of harm or injury, and that it is only then that a child will listen. Violence begets violence, so to not punish does not mean not having disciplined.”
At worst, she says, teachers need to appreciate that spanking constitutes the violation of children’s rights. She says while disciplining children is necessary, its value can only be appreciated if it is done in the right manner.
“Parents can, and should, discipline their children to teach them roles, responsibilities, values and norms.
“But they need to understand that discipline is there to help children to learn adaptive behaviours and unlearn unhealthy, inappropriate behaviours that could inflict any kind of injury on themselves and others and have negative consequences. Discipline is about corrective behaviour, nurturing, and it is about reviving that unconditional love but within limits.”
She says discipline needs “more physical investment, and actually sitting with your child, engaging, negotiating, providing options, choices”.
“Communication, clarity and consistency, and creativity in your conversation with your children is vital.”
Paul Colbitz, the chief executive at the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools concurs. He says while the rules are important in fostering discipline, schools should rather adopt a value approach where teachers, pupils and parents come together a school community “to determine a set of moral and ethical values” for the school.
“In that way, the whole community takes ownership of the school and drives the school according to those values, where the focus is on teaching teaching positive approaches and values rather than on punishment for breaking the rules.
“The focus should be on positive ethical and moral values, things like respect, accountability, honesty, integrity and so on. If a rule is not based on values, it doesn’t deserve to be a rule,” he says.
Motshekga has herself acknowledged that it is simply not sufficient to merely tell teachers what they cannot do, as many teachers still continue to administer corporal punishment anyway. She has recognised the importance of supporting schools by providing alternative means of disciplining pupils as well as behaviour management methods.
“Teachers are aware of the alternative methods because we have always advocated other ways they can institute discipline, and that different offences will need different forms of discipline.
“When kids arrive late, for instance, you don’t allow them to come into the class and make them stand outside. If they make a noise, you throw them out of your class.”
“So the form of punishment depends on the type of offence and the severity. You have different methods to suit the crime and the age. The teachers must find alter- native ways to discipline because you can’t run the school without discipline.”