CEO Column: The Ban on Corporal Punishment in the Home

Thursday 21 November 2019
One day, not too long ago, a Johannesburg father came home to find his son watching pornography on TV. The father flew into a fit of rage, and beat his son so badly that he ended up in hospital. The case went to court, where the father argued that his actions should be considered as “reasonable chastisement”, which was permitted then under the Children’s Act.

But what is reasonable? The Judge ruled that this was in fact assault, and he effectively stopped the use of “reasonable chastisement” as a defence in cases of violence against children. In other words, this Judge banned corporal punishment in the home.

The ruling was deeply controversial in South Africa, where the spanking of children by their parents is common. Most of us grew up with corporal punishment both in the home and at school, and many still view this as an effective and essential form of discipline. 

I remember in my school in the 1980’s that “six of the best” was the ultimate threat, and if we stepped out of line our Principal would cane us six times in a row. This was considered normal back then. Fortunately, corporal punishment has long since been banned in schools (although the practice persists in many places). But until recently, it was still permitted in the home. 

And so this case went all the way to the Constitutional Court, where on 18 September 2019 the ruling was upheld, making this the 57th  country to achieve a full ban corporal punishment in all settings. The following day, South Africans woke to the news that they could no longer use physical discipline in the home, and the predictable outcry ensued. Celebrities on social media were particularly shrill.

But this ruling is a victory for child rights. Children in South Africa are exposed to excessive levels of violence, and there is ample evidence that this is harmful to their development, and perpetuates inter-generational abuse. Children who grow up with violence in the home learn early and powerful lessons about the use of violence to solve their problems and dominate others. 

What makes it difficult is that many adults struggle with the dichotomy of discipline versus abuse. They believe that discipline is delivered by parents who love and care for their children, while abuse is inflicted by cruel and uncaring parents. But research shows that this is not true, and that in most cases physical punishment is physical abuse in intent, form and effect.

Many of us who experienced physical punishment as children also tend to view it as an appropriate response to parent-child conflict today. Much in the same way that we used to justify punishments at school, like “six of the best”. In doing so we normalise and legitimise things that have no place in our society. 

There are also economic and social implications to physical punishment. Save the Children’s Violence Unwrapped study estimated that in 2015 alone, violence against children cost South Africa R238 billion, or nearly 5% of the country’s GDP. Costs to society in productivity and well-being are also high.

What we need now is positive parenting. This is a comprehensive approach that uses discipline to teach rather than punish and, as a result, helps children succeed and thrive in life. It is fair, loving, caring and consistent. It provides warmth and structure. It is age appropriate. And it encourages parents to learn how to control and manage their own emotions. It is an approach that I use in my own home, and that I have seen work in families across the country.

Next week, Save the Children South Africa (SCSA) will hold the first roundtable on positive parenting in Parliament. It is an opportunity to educate Members of Parliament and their staff on positive parenting, and for children to address the group directly on their own experiences of corporal punishment. 

SCSA is also working with the Department of Social Development to roll out positive parenting training to caregivers around the country, in recognition of the urgent need for effective, positive parenting tools.
We intend to scale up this work in 2020, in partnership with government and civil society. Because this is how we stop violence in our society, by bringing up children in an environment of love and respect, in which violence has no place. 

By  Steve Miller, CEO of Save the Children South Africa. 
About: Save the Children believes every child deserves a future. In South Africa and around the world, we give children a healthy start in life, the opportunity to learn and protection from harm. We do whatever it takes for children – every day and in times of crisis – transforming their lives and the future we share.
Note to the Editor: If children are affected, we’ve got something to say. Our team of experts are available for comments, interviews and information.