Eleanor du Plooy

Why SA desperately needed the 'spanking judgment'

2017-10-30 08:40
(File, Gallo Images)

(File, Gallo Images)

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I can count on my one hand the number of times my mother gave me a spanking.

One perfectly timed look directed at either my brother or I and we would know that we'd done something wrong.

She managed to somehow instil a self-governing mechanism within us where the fear of disappointing her was far greater than the threat of an impending hiding. An extraordinary feat for any single mother raising two kids in the hood.

Other children weren't as lucky. I saw how my uncles used sjamboks to discipline their children leaving split-open welts on their legs and backs. My favourite aunt had a homemade sjambok with three thick leather straps tied to a wooden handle. Its name was Klaar Gepraat (finished talking). Wet dish cloths, wooden spoons and worn-out slippers were all objects used to mete out punishment.

A recent ruling by the South Gauteng High Court found the common law defence of 'reasonable chastisement' to be unconstitutional. The now defunct defence allowed a parent charged with assault to make a case for reasonable chastisement depending on the nature of the child's transgression, their age, gender and size, the force, object used, and the motive of the parent.

To be clear, this does not mean that a new offense has been created. Under the South African criminal law hitting a child has always been assault unless a parent could prove that the punishment meted out was reasonable.

When I asked some colleagues and friends how they felt about the ruling, their responses reflected our conservative upbringing. "My parents gave me a hiding and I turned out okay" and "buig die boompie" (bend the young tree) were among some of the comebacks.

Never mind that those who did get a hiding are in no position to know how they would have turned out had they not gotten that smack to the bum. Very few lauded the ruling or viewed it as progressive. Some even lamented how this is further evidence of how the country has lost the plot and that it is now truly going to the dogs.

Violence is a permanent feature of the South African landscape – both in our public and private spaces. And in some of these spaces corporal punishment and assault are closely related. In some homes there is nearly no distinction between the two.

Corporal punishment contributes to the shaping of a culture that regards violence as a reasonable means of solving problems or communicating dissatisfaction. This is deeply problematic and can have dire consequences.

Not only does it contribute to the perpetuation of cycles of violence within families and communities but it has lasting negative effects on the psyche of the child. Physical punishment can lead to increased aggression, antisocial behaviour, physical injury and mental health problems for children.

The rest of the family, street and community who are often witness to this blurring of the line between corporal punishment and assault become desensitised to it. This violence can become so normalised that abusive parents are merely seen to be overly strict and their actions are excused as being from the 'old school'. 

The only real 'benefit' of a hiding from a parent is that the desired effect is nearly almost immediate. Depending on the disposition of the child, physical chastisement guarantees a parent instantaneous compliance from the child.

After being at the receiving end of a 'good' hiding as a child, you'll make sure never to be caught committing the same offence! This however doesn't guarantee that the child won't do it again, they merely learn not to get caught doing it again. In other words the child learns how to avoid punishment rather than learning to discern for themselves between what is right and wrong.

But what happens when a child doesn't respond to a hiding in the same way and where parents feel that one spanking isn't enough? In these cases the situation tends to escalate with the child at the receiving end of what ends up being abuse.

Stories of children suffering brutal abuse at the hands of their parents is something we as South Africans are all too familiar with.

The judge who passed the watershed ruling emphasised that the intention of the court was not to make criminals of parents but rather to assist them in exploring more positive and ultimately effective ways of disciplining children. Perhaps this could be an important first step toward instilling principles of peace in homes that can spill out into the street and hopefully, in the long term, facilitate a reduction in the high levels of violence in our society.

Maybe one day in the near future all the Klaar Gepraat sjamboks will merely be ornaments on walls reminding us of a time when we didn't know better. 

- Eleanor du Plooy runs the Ashley Kriel Youth Desk at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.


Read more on:    court judgement  |  spanking  |  corporal punishment


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