Labour backs ban on child beating

2013-08-05 00:00

SEX scandals, amid accusations of conspiracy, strikes and ongoing fears of violence, have dominated the news about trade unions recently. And the spectre of Wonderkop and the dead and crippled miners, both pre and post Marikana, has continued to loom large.

This comes at a time when gang thuggery in regions such as the Cape Flats is escalating and police are killed, apparently for their weapons. From Limpopo to the Cape, there continues to be many instances of the rape and abuse of children. By any standards, we are a violent nation, across all ethnic and class lines.

While the struggles of trade unions in this country have too often been marred by bloody conflict, much of this has not been of the making of the unions or their members — workers tend to be the victims in a system steeped for generations in the violent resolution of disputes.

All of which seems quite understandable, given our history. And before condemnation again arises about trade unions as a source of violence, a closer look at that history is appropriate.

Especially at the start of Women’s Month, and when the airwaves are abuzz with condemnation about planned legislation that will outlaw the beating, in whatever form, of children.

Under the draft law, parents or guardians could face a charge of assault if they “spank”, “paddle” or otherwise physically admonish any child, even in the privacy of their own homes.

As Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini notes: “If a husband beats a wife it’s a crime, but if a parent hits a child who is helpless, it’s not illegal.”

Childline’s Joan van Niekerk points out that the new law would also be an extension of existing domestic-violence legislation.

Such comments have seen numerous parents up in arms, along with the Inkatha Freedom Party, some religious fundamentalists and several teachers who have, since 1996, been forbidden to physically punish their charges.

By and large, this “spare the rod and spoil the child” brigade is out of step, certainly with the teacher unions, whose position reflects one of the demands of the 1976 student rebellion.

This is usually remembered as a revolt against the enforced teaching in the Afrikaans medium. Afrikaans was the trigger, but there were a host of demands, prime among them the abolition of corporal punishment.

All South Africans felt the effects of generations of this institutionalised violence, and teachers, in particular, saw it as an acceptable means of instilling discipline. A prime example of how deeply ingrained it was emerged when the ANC established a school in Tanzania for the exiles of 1976, staffed mainly by teachers from “back home”.

In line with the demands of the pupils and with the policies of donor states such as Sweden, the ANC administration adopted a trumpeted policy of no corporal punishment — and ignored it in practice. When I became the founding principal of the primary division, I was presented with two implements deemed necessary: a bell and a strap, both of which I mislaid on the same day.

But, on the ground in South Africa, attitudes were slowly changing, among pupils, teachers and in the broader labour movement.

Along with what is generally seen as progressive labour legislation and a lauded Constitution, a Schools Act was passed in 1996. The teacher unions had direct input with regard to the legislation that forbade corporal punishment at schools.

“The proposed legislation is, therefore, a logical extension of the Schools Act,” says SA Teachers’ Union (better known by its Afrikaans acronym, SAOU) chief executive, Chris Klopper.

For more than a decade, the SAOU has been staging workshops for members, instructing them on the latest teaching methods and alternative means of discipline.

The workshops have apparently paid dividends.

The National Professional Teachers’ Organisation (Naptosa) also conducts regular workshops illustrating how counter-productive corporal punishment is, and with similarly good results.

“But the problem is that the concept of corporal punishment has been embedded for so many years,” says Naptosa president, Basil Manuel.

“The Education Department also did not equip teachers to deal with any other means of discipline,” he says.

The SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), also complains about the lack of adequate training for teachers.

Coming from a recent tradition where flogging, by canes was routine punishment in police stations, where the sjambok ruled in many farming areas, South Africa has come a long way.

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