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Nannying the ninnies on the last frontier

South Africa is cowboy country. In case anyone hasn’t noticed, law abiding instincts are poorly developed here, on the southern tip of the continent.

But the upside of being the last frontier is that we are not yet cocooned in that regulatory cobweb that has reduced much of the world’s citizens to quivering ninnies, reliant on the nanny state to protect them from any conceivable harm that might befall them. Anywhere. Ever.

Hence the many absurd product warnings, as manufacturers scramble to protect themselves from the litigiousness of the terminally stupid consumers who buy their products. Like the warning ‘never iron clothes on the body’ on a British iron, the ‘do not use while sleeping’ warning on a Japanese hair dryer, and the one on an American lavatory plunger, ‘do not use near power lines’.

America, once the home of the brave, is at the forefront of these pathetic and futile attempts to create a zero-risk world. There you sue the takeaway outlet when you spill your hot coffee on yourself and the council when you trip over a slightly raised curb stone.

Oh, and the pain and suffering that had to be compensated for when a Pennsylvanian man was forced to subsist on dog food for eight days in a locked garage because the automatic garage door malfunctioned during his attempted burglary. He didn’t manage to steal anything but it at least netted the thief $500 000 for his anguish from the hapless insurance company.

Britain is not far behind. A couple of years back soldiers in its elite paratroop regiment sued — and won — damages for injuries sustained during a training exercise carried out in rough weather. Poor diddums. Afghanistan must have come as a helluva shock.

South Africans are not immune to the trend of behaving stupidly and then blaming others in order to extort money from them. Litigiousness is increasing apace, as we take our cues from indulgent mollycoddling societies elsewhere.

So three cheers for Acting Judge Jan Hiemstra. In a ruling this week he struck a blow for the concept of self-responsibility and for the reality that life has serrated edges which, unless one exercises a modicum of common sense, will send you snivelling home to Mummy.

A former Grade 10 schoolboy in Pretoria sued Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool for R838 375 because he lost an eye following an injury received while larking about with friends in the hostel grounds. Jan Veenstra blamed his accident on the negligence of the school, saying that it allowed children to ‘play on their own and misbehave’, according to a report in the Pretoria News.

What a shocker! The school assumed that left alone for an hour or so, well-educated sixteen-year olds at one of the country’s most prestigious schools would not poke out one another’s eyes? How can we as a society tolerate such institutional nonchalance? Someone must surely be made to pay.

From the evidence before Hiemstra it transpired that however unfortunate the incident, the fault lay entirely with the young men involved and not because there were ‘insufficient discipline and rules’. Veenstra had climbed onto the roof of a shed to retrieve a ball. He also found a stick, which he slung down at his mates. One of them threw it back. The sharp end struck him in the eye.

Sadly, that’s what happens with pointy sticks, as your Mum no doubt warned you as a child. It’s one of those home rules — don’t throw stones, look both ways before crossing the road, don’t choke your little sister — that society is entitled to assume that you will have internalised by age of 16.

Judge Hiemstra consequently ruled that the school should not be punished for the teens’ silly behaviour. In a rather unfortunate choice of words, Hiemstra said, “This incident must have occurred in the blink of an eye. I cannot see how the school authorities should have anticipated this.”

A rare victory for common sense.