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The South Gauteng High Court recently ruled that it is now illegal for parents to spank their children.
The common law defence of 'reasonable chastisement' is not in line with the Children's Charter of South Africa and our Constitution, and as such the court found that parents who spank their children and are charged cannot, as a result, use it as a defence.
In the context of the high levels of domestic violence and child abuse that pervade South African society, this ruling has widely been welcomed by child and gender activists like Sonke Gender Justice, Children's Institute (UCT) and the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. At the same time, parents have indicated, through social media, their dissatisfaction.
Despite the prevalence of existing laws that regulate interpersonal relations in citizens' private lives they are rarely effective. Gender-based violence is criminalised and yet South Africa has one of the highest rates of sexual assault in the world. Laws are not necessarily effective behavioural deterrents. Arguably, they treat the symptoms of much deeper problems. So if the goal is to reduce physical harm experienced by kids, how effective will this law actually be?
The ruling raises another question: how will this law be enforced when for all the other laws that seek to regulate interpersonal relations in the home can arguably be described as unsuccessful. Spanking is varied in its meaning in different homes, spanking could mean a light rap on the knuckles, it could mean five lashes with the belt on the bum or the reaction could simply be to beat the child because as Trevor Noah jokes, "Spanking is for playing".
Domestic violence in all its forms by its very nature is secretive, unless the victim speaks out. And speaking in a patriarchal society means perpetrators are protected and victims blamed and shamed.
For children the burden is higher: you are either not believed or deemed disrespectful or a trouble-maker. Our society disincentivises victims to speak out against violence they have experienced in the privacy of their homes.
There need to be holistic understandings of the manifestations of violence in the home and as such there should be concerted efforts to create platforms from which non-violent solutions are provided for citizens.
The 'stick' of this law criminalising violence should be accompanied by the 'carrot' of a mass education drive on the various alternatives to physical discipline. This is important most especially in our context where single headed female households are the norm.
One example of an alternative I can think of replacing spanking with compulsory meditation; a school replaced their detention with meditation with stunning results. I would think that this create emotionally intelligent, reflective little humans.
Another question to ask is how this law will affect racial groupings in South Africa differently? There is a qualitative difference in how black communities raise their children compared to the socially 'dominant' white community. There is an explicit racial parenting divide and one only needs to watch how differently white and black children behave in public.
In public, white children generally feel the prerogative to roam freely, unhindered by rules, regulations or propriety. They are self-confident enough to speak their mind in front of and when speaking to other adults; whereas as black children are taught to be deferential.
The world is a place white children can explore as and how they wish and white parents allow this. In the black community however, children are raised to be well-behaved, non-threatening, well-trained and disciplined; most especially in public spaces.
Arguably, the historical legacies of racial violence in this country (and in America, for example) have conditioned black parents to discipline their children out of fear of state violence. Prof. Brittney Cooper has argued that:
"The loving intent and sincerity of our disciplinary strategies does not preclude them from being imbricated in these larger state-based ideas about how to compel black bodies to act in ways that are seen as non-menacing, unobtrusive and basically invisible. Many hope that by enacting these micro-level violences on black bodies, we can protect our children from macro and deadly forms of violence later."
In the not so public sphere, there are stories one can share about visiting white friends in their homes and being shocked at the disrespectful, careless and free manner in which white children are allowed to behave and address their parents. If we tried to behave like white children in our black homes we'd get a spanking faster than you can say sorry. A friend wrote a status that reads:
This for me shows why it is important that we begin to engage each other in intergenerational dialogue about corporal punishment and why it is no longer acceptable. Why parents need to begin to do better.
The normalisation of violence in our society has not allowed us to think of discipline outside of violence. Given the inherited trauma and violence, we have developed violent coping mechanisms in an inherently violent society.
This law, however, does force us to think broadly about non-violent means of disciplining of children. It makes us ask how we can establish healthier, better familial relationships.
We need to begin to create nurturing, emotionally stable and physically safe home environments for children. The creation of safer states means that we won't need to police black children differently to white children; when we can live in societies that do not view black children as less innocent than white children we will be well on our way toward the creation of non-violent child rearing environments.
We need spaces where children are allowed to experience their full range of emotions, which includes anger. If children are not allowed to experience anger as a legitimate emotion in the home, how are they expected to grow up into adults that can control, let alone handle, their anger both inside and outside of it?
That it takes a village to raise a child means that parenthood is shared. The responsibility of parenthood is shared not just among biological parents; a shared societal, communal responsibility of raising the next generation of adults in such a way that we nurture, guide and mentor children to be their best selves.
The world is your oyster, should not be a lesson taught only to white children. Black children should not be taught simply to cope within a violent system, they should be taught that they can and will be anything and everything that they want to be in the same way white children are.
That our lives are all interconnected is a truth that we urgently need to start living.
- Ashanti Kunene is an intern in the Sustained Dialogues programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. She is also an International Studies Masters student with Stellenbosch University.
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