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You don’t build a family with a stick

By Lorenzo Wakefield

The title of this column is taken from a Zulu saying that contradicts Khaya Dlanga’s defence of the manner in which black parents discipline their children. Corporal punishment is a concept that was brought to Africa and South Africa by the British colonialist in the form of a common law defence of reasonable chastisement, which sadly still finds a place in our law. It was never an indigenous African concept. In fact, the African Union Children’s Rights committee termed corporal punishment as a form of violence and five other African countries already banned all forms of it within their domestic laws.

“To call it violence is extreme and lacks understanding the society from which many people come,” says Dlanga.

Our conceptualisation of “violence” has evolved. Violence is objective and does not differ from race to race, culture to culture or class to class. South Africa will never be able to deal with primary prevention of violence in a sustained manner if violence is not dealt with in the home. It’s not OK for adults to hit each other — then it is assault. It’s not OK for a husband to hit his wife — then it is domestic violence. The Domestic Violence Act protects adults from all forms of inter-personal violence. Yet, there is no protection for children from inter-personal violence, which is astonishing considering the fact that children are more vulnerable to abuse by adults. So why is it OK for an adult to hit a child, which is one of the most vulnerable citizens in this country? Because it is seen as discipline, when in actual fact, it is not. It is a “quick solution” to ensure immediate compliance, but in actual fact does more long-term harm than good.

I always find it astonishing when I see some parents shocked at the fact that their child hit another child, be it at school or in the community and then say “I have no idea where she or he picked this up” — yet completely forgetting that such child picked it up in the home, where this same parent exercised corporal punishment on this child.

More and more research points to the fact that corporal punishment of children as a form of “discipline” has adverse effects on their physical, emotional, cognitive, neurological and, extremely important in light of the high levels of interpersonal violence in SA, behavioural and social outcomes. In fact a recent PhD conducted at Wits university by Dr Amelia Kleijn found that there is a strong link of convicted perpetrators of rape — especially those who raped young children under the age of three — who were all corporally punished when they were younger.

I recall many people being shocked at the release of the findings of the national survey of violence in schools study by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention a couple of months ago. I wasn’t shocked in light of the amount of children being subjected to violence in the homes and communities in South Africa, especially when corporal punishment is being defended as “discipline” and, as Dlanga would like to believe, not a form of violence. If we keep this trend, we will never deal with violence in schools and communities sustainably.

I would like to challenge all of those in favour of corporal punishment in the home to embrace a paradigm shift beyond a quick fix that recognises the rights of children and deals with the prevention of violence in society and the home in a more sustainable manner. At the same time, I would like to challenge the state in providing information on sustainable forms of positive discipline that can — no must — be used as alternatives to corporal punishment.

Lorenzo Wakefield is a researcher and expert on children’s rights who has published and advocated for the prohibition of corporal punishment for a number of years. During 2012 he was also chosen as one of the 200 Young South Africans by the Mail & Guardian.

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