In 2019 the Constitutional Court ruled that parents who choose to use physical punishment to discipline their children could face legal consequences. In 1997 the Abolition of Corporal Punishment Act banned corporal punishment in all areas as well.
However, it seems not everyone got the memo, and we have received numerous messages from parents revealing that their children are being physically punished by teachers in our schools.
In one recent example, this reader wrote to share her terrible experience, asking for advice.
Good morning Parent24,
Last year was a very difficult year for us as a family we constantly attended hearings at schools where teachers were chasing learners away from school for refusing to be beaten by teachers on their hands and bums, and lots of verbal abuse.
As a result of all that the children did not do so well in school, because they were afraid of the teachers and they kept quiet even if they didn't understand the lesson.
Once my father and his brother had to step in and go fight with the school principal, because my son was assaulted by male teachers for refusing to be beaten on his bum as punishment.
When he told the teachers that he was suffering from piles they did not believe him and they assaulted him.
They later came to our house to say they apologise for what they had done, saying it was out of anger because these children don't listen.
We accepted the apology and we didn't open a case because we were scared they would fail the children on purpose, because that's what they do.
But now the children are sitting at home with no school, because they refuse to go back to that same school.
As a single mom who doesn't have a permanent job I cannot afford to take them to better schools and I am struggling.
We take a look at the law.
First and most important is to know that corporal punishment is illegal in South Africa. The South African Schools Act 84 of 1996 states:
Prohibition of corporal punishment
(1) No person may administer corporal punishment at a school to a learner.
(2) Any person who contravenes subsection (1) is guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a sentence which could be imposed for assault.
In short, any form of physical discipline is a criminal offense and a teacher who contravenes this law can be charged with assault.
The Act goes on to clarify that with regards to non-violence and the freedom and security of a person:
4.4.1 Every learner has the right not to be treated or punished in a cruel, inhuman or degrading manner. Corporal punishment has been abolished. Educators and learners have to learn the importance of mediation and co-operation, to seek and negotiate non-violent solutions to conflict and differences and to make use of due process of law.
4.4.2 Learners have the right not to be locked up in solitary confinement or detention.
4.4.3 The philosophy of the disciplinary system is based on human dignity and on respect and consideration for others and not on fear or assault.
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What constitutes corporal punishment?
Corporal punishment includes hitting a minor with a hand or any object, but is not restricted to this.
The UNICEF Committee on the Rights of the Child in the General Comment No. 8 defines this form of punishment as,"any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light."
This can then include pinching, kicking, scratching or burning a student, pulling their hair and throwing objects at them. Also included is denying a student meals, the use of the toilet, and shelter from the elements.
UNICEF includes "punishment which belittles, humiliates, denigrates, scapegoats, threatens, scares or ridicules the child."
What can a parent do to protect their child?
Any school staff member who has violated this rule may face consequences.
The steps are covered in Section 110 of the Children’s Act, which states that teachers are legally obliged to report abuse to the provincial department of social development, or a police official.
Ruskha Lee Pedro, an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Practitioner from Johannesburg, advised us on the practical aspects.
"In my opinion if your child comes home with any sort of evidence that he/she has been physically harmed, I would report the matter immediately," she said.
"Call an emergency meeting with the grade head and possibly the class teacher, to not have the teacher feel ostracized in anyway," she told Parent24, "and explain the situation and request an urgent resolution to this matter as your child’s schooling is in jeopardy."
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She says that hopefully it will get resolved, but if not, the next step would be to approach the school principal through the correct channels and set up a meeting. Each school has a set of guidelines and procedures when it comes to Child Safety. Each parent needs to be made aware of this.
"If nothing is done after this, if this is a Government or semi Government school, they should have a School Governing Body (SGB). You can approach the SGB head and discuss the serious nature of the allegations and take it from there," the mediation specialist and founder of Minor Impact, advised us.
"This is always a risk," she added, "as a mother you fear that your child will be victimised even more, but if all the correct channels have been taken and the entire procedure has been documented, further legal action can be taken if need be."
Can a parent go to the police?
Pieter Spruyt, a representative of SLDP Attorneys, who works closely with Pedro, told us that in his opinion first prize would be to remove the child from the school. He acknowledged that this is a challenge, but it is not completely insurmountable.
Second prize, he said, would be to call an urgent meeting at the school to say that the child will return to school, based on the undertaking that this type of abusive behaviour will cease.
"This is quite a difficult one as this opens up the door to future abuse and victimisation, he warned, adding that parents please keep this in mind.
If this route doesn't work for you, he says, "It is completely acceptable, if you as a parent, choose to take matters further to the police, once your initial attempts of approaching the school have failed (as in this case)."
So how should teachers discipline students?
The Act covers this clearly, stating in Section 7 that:
7.5 Every educator is responsible for discipline at all times at the school and at school related activities. Educators have full authority and responsibility to correct the behaviour of learners whenever such correction is necessary at the school. Serious misconduct must be referred to the principal of the school. However, a mechanism must be created at schools to handle disciplinary problems to reduce the load of the principal.
7.6 Any corrective measures or disciplinary action must be commensurate with the offence/infraction. Corrective measures may become more severe with subsequent repeated infractions. Suspension or expulsion may follow.
Pedro also suggests a session with the school psychologist or counsellor, or if they are not readily available the parent can get hold of Childline on 08000 55 555.
Childline offers free counselling over the phonem a face to face session can also be arranged at no charge.
Importantly, Pedro adds "Your child needs to know that you are in their corner, always!"
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