The high court judgment in the case of YG versus the State in 2017 banned corporal punishment in the home, which, in effect, bans it in all places.
Before that, corporal punishment was banned only in the education system, places of alternative care and as a punitive sentence in the justice system. Until this historic case, parents could rely on the defence of reasonable chastisement when using corporal punishment to discipline their children.
This judgment came at a time when South Africa was being called upon to take appropriate steps to prohibit all corporal punishment. The Committee on the Rights of the Child, a body of independent experts that monitors and reports on the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child by governments that ratify the convention, in its concluding observation on the second periodic report on South Africa, raised concern that the country had not prohibited corporal punishment in the home.
The African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child in 2014 also called on South Africa to ban corporal punishment in the home and to promote and provide information and training on positive disciplining. It urged South Africa to harmonise its national laws that permitted parents to reasonably chastise their children with this.
Research evidence shows that corporal punishment has long-term negative effects on children — it has a damaging effect on children’s neurological development and may compromise cognitive development, thereby resulting in increased aggression. The trauma of corporal punishment may result in long-lasting intergenerational effects and increases the risk of the child perpetrating physical violence.
It also violates the children’s human rights recognised in the Constitution and in international instruments. As stated by the Constitutional Court in Christian Education versus the Minister of Education, corporal punishment violates many children’s rights, such as their right to dignity, right to freedom and security of person, and their right to be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse or degradation.
Corporal punishment feeds into the culture of violence that permeates South Africa today. According to the 2016 Optimus Study on Child Abuse, Violence and Neglect in South Africa, 34.8% of children experience some form of physical violence, 26.1% experience emotional abuse and 15.1% experience neglect. The study concluded that 42% of children had experienced some form of violence.
The high levels of violence that children are subjected to with acts such as corporal punishment may also result in high levels of homicide, of which children are also victims. The homicide rate in South Africa is 38.4 murders per 100 000 people, almost six times the global homicide rate, and the child homicide rate is 5.5 per 100 000, more than double the global average.
Children younger than five are at risk of fatal abuse by someone close to them, and teenage boys are most likely to be killed in male-on-male interpersonal violence.
These statistics show that we have to address the root cause of the violence in society.
The challenge of the ban on corporal punishment in the home is implementation. The government has been unsuccessful in eradicating corporal punishment in schools. This is evident from the South African Council for Educators 2015-2016 annual report. It indicates that many educators are still using corporal punishment. The report also shows a slight increase in the number of complaints relating to corporal punishment when compared with the previous annual reports.
The government has taken several measures to prohibit it, including developing manuals and training teachers in positive discipline methods. But these have not translated into full implementation in schools, because many teachers have not been trained and the initiatives are insufficient in transforming attitudes and empowering educators to implement positive methods of discipline. Failure to sanction educators adequately has also hampered implementation.
It is anticipated that, in implementing the ban on corporal punishment in the home, the government must take stock of the lack of implementation in schools and formulate a plan that will guarantee full implementation in schools and homes.
Criminalising corporal punishment will not be enough to create the shift in mindset necessary to change attitudes and practices. The government, working together with civil society, business and the media, must invest in campaigns and advocacy tools that educate everyone (parents, pupils, government officials, children, traditional and religious leaders) about positive parenting and the dangers of corporal punishment.
It is important to recognise that violence against children cannot be addressed in isolation. Violence in schools is inextricably linked to violence and victimisation in broader society. Concerted efforts must be made to break the cycle of violence if we want to protect our children.
Angie Makwetla is a commissioner with the South African Human Rights Commission responsible for children’s rights