Dear friends and fellow South Africans,
In my family we have a few clear, established rules that my children know better than to contravene. One of these is that they may not disrespect their mother. From a young age, we taught all our children why they should respect their mother and what the consequences would be for insolence or rudeness towards her
– the rod of correction would be applied to the seat of learning.
Disciplining one’s children is a vital part of raising them to be independent, responsible and mature citizens, capable of maintaining relationships and being productive. In other words, it’s part of making happy, healthy people. Without discipline, children have no boundaries and, without boundaries, a child begins to question whether they are loved.
The great eighteenth century French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, had four children. All four were left on the steps of the local orphanage. Rousseau claimed he was acting on the teachings of Plato, who believed that the State was better equipped than parents to raise good citizens.
I thought about this last week when the Minister of Social Development announced that her Department was preparing amendments to the Children’s Act to ban parents from using ‘corporal punishment’ to discipline their children. Is it reasonable for the State to intervene in the family to this extent?
Before I even embark on a discussion of this topic, I must clearly set out where I stand as far as violence against children is concerned.
Discipline and abuse are two entirely different concepts. I would never condone abuse in the home under the guise of chastisement. In fact, I believe that punishment and discipline are also two entirely different concepts.
Punishment is retributive, rather than corrective. It does not reflect love. Discipline, on the other hand, teaches a child self-restraint and respect for authority. Thus, if we seek moral regeneration in our nation, we cannot discount the value of discipline.
I believe in allowing reality to teach children. If they make a poor decision, allow them to experience the natural consequences. If you continually step in to make excuses for their inappropriate behaviour or poor judgement, they will quickly abdicate personal responsibility.
Teach them how to apologise and face up to their mistakes.
I have raised eight children, both boys and girls, and I know that every child is different. As parents, we need to allow the temperament of the child to determine the manner and type of discipline. One child will be deeply distraught by a parent’s expressed disappointment, while another won’t seem to care. For some, withholding privileges (not rights) encourages improved behaviour. For others, the promise of a privilege is enough incentive.
But with all children, discipline must always be done in love. I believe a child needs to understand why their behaviour is inappropriate before they will be willing to change it. Knowing you might get a hiding for stealing sweets is far less of a deterrent than an understanding that stealing is wrong because of the hurt, insult or deprivation it causes.
Of course, every parent knows that children are masters of logic and will reason with themselves endlessly to get to the point of being allowed to do whatever they wanted to do in the first place. Our task as parents is far from easy and we need all the tools at our disposal.
Open and continuous communication is one such tool. A relationship of trust and mutual respect is another.
For those who believe in spanking, it should always be a tool of last resort. It should never be meted out in anger, and must always be followed with affirmation of the continued stability of the parent-child relationship. Both the child and the parent must know where the line is, and when it has been crossed, and that line cannot be arbitrarily moved.
I grew up with the biblical teachings of Proverbs, which include, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him” (Proverbs 13:24), “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him” (Proverbs 22:15), “The rod of correction imparts wisdom, but a child left to himself disgraces his mother” (Proverbs 29:15) and “He who ignores discipline comes to poverty and shame, but whoever heeds correction is honoured” (Proverbs 13:18).
When our Government legislated against corporal punishment in schools, I was a member of Cabinet, and I recall saying to President Nelson Mandela that he would not be sitting where he was sitting if he had not been disciplined as a child. He wholeheartedly agreed. I still wonder whether we effectively equipped teachers with alternative tools of discipline.
Now, with the Department of Social Development intent on telling parents how they may not raise their children, I cannot help but wonder how they will equip parents to raise their children differently. Presumably, the proposed ban on parental ‘corporal punishment’ is aimed at preventing the line between discipline and abuse from being crossed. But surely intensifying measures to detect, prevent and remedy abuse is preferable to turning good parents into criminals.
When the Children’s Amendment Bill was under discussion in Parliament in 2007, the National Council of Provinces inserted certain clauses prohibiting parental corporal punishment and removing the notion of reasonable chastisement. The controversial Section 139 read as follows –
(1) A person who has care of a child, including a person who has parental responsibilities and rights in respect of the child, must respect, promote and protect the child’s right to physical and psychological integrity as conferred by section 12(1)(c), (d) and (e) of the Constitution.
(2) No child may be subjected to corporal punishment or be punished in a cruel, inhuman or degrading way.
(3) The common law defence of reasonable chastisement available to persons referred to in subsection (1) in any court proceeding is hereby abolished.”
Section 12 of the Constitution reads –
“12. Freedom and security of the person
1. Everyone has the right to freedom and security of the person, which includes the right –
(a) not to be deprived of freedom arbitrarily or without just cause;
(b) not to be detained without trial;
(c) to be free from all forms of violence from either public or private sources;
(d) not to be tortured in any way; and
(e) not to be treated or punished in a cruel, inhuman or degrading way.”
When the Children’s Amendment Bill, with this new insertion by the NCOP’s Select Committee on Social Services, was tabled before the Portfolio Committee on Social Development, concerns were raised that a matter of such consequence should be put to public hearings.
This was, in fact, not the first time the issue had been raised in the public domain. When the South African Law Reform Commission began preparing policy for the Department in 2003, it received public submissions on parental corporal punishment. Then, and again in the 2007 public hearings, most South Africans felt that criminalising parents for spanking their children was beyond the jurisdiction of the State.
The question is; do we want to create a “nanny state” in South Africa, in which Government interferes in every aspect of our lives supposedly to protect us from ourselves? If there is something in the legislation or its implementation that is not working effectively when it comes to fighting abuse, we need to fix what is actually broken.
The Constitution does not require a ban on parental corporal discipline. Instead, it speaks about preventing “violence”. The World Health Organisation’s “World Report on Violence and Health” defines “violence” as follows –
“the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.”
I would argue that a smack on the bottom, or a smack on the hand, with the intention to discipline, is highly unlikely to result in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation. Discipline is not violence any more than it is abuse.
Thus the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child also places no requirement on signatory states to ban parental corporal discipline. Instead, in Article 5, the Convention reads – “States Parties shall respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents ” to provide appropriate direction and guidance?”
Article 19 reads –
“1. States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.
2. Such protective measures should, as appropriate, include effective procedures for the establishment of social programmes to provide necessary support for the child and for those who have the care of the child, as well as for other forms of prevention and for identification, reporting, referral, investigation, treatment and follow-up of instances of child maltreatment described heretofore, and, as appropriate, for judicial involvement.”
Clearly the Convention is not referring to spanking. In fact, one of the reasons why the Portfolio Committee on Social Development decided to omit from the Children’s Amendment Bill the section that banned parental corporal punishment and the reasonable chastisement defence, was the difficulty expressed by the National Prosecuting Authority in prosecuting every parent who spanked their child.
In the end, it was decided to hold this proposal in abeyance until all the new legislation on children had been adopted and established. The intention was always there to revisit the proposal. Thus it comes as no surprise that the Minister is raising it again.
But has it become any more palatable, acceptable, reasonable or feasible than it was in 2007? By removing the defence of reasonable chastisement, there would be no room for discretion by the National Prosecuting Authority to withhold prosecution on what it deemed a trivial matter. Every parent who was reported as having disciplined their child with a smack or a spanking would have to be prosecuted.
As the Portfolio Committee pointed out, a prohibition that is not supported by an offence is meaningless. In both criminal and civil law, a prohibition must have a concomitant offence.
So what are we trying to achieve with this prohibition? We are saying, “If you smack your child, it’s wrong, but we aren’t going to prosecute you. We’re going to send you to parenting classes. If you smack your child again, we’ll send you to more parenting classes, because this is not a prosecutable offence.” A smack cannot be prosecutable in one instance and not in another. When does it become abuse, and prosecutable? And, if it is not abuse, why is it prohibited?
Parental corporal discipline would have to be prosecuted as assault in every instance. How will our courts manage that?
My greater concern, however, is that good parents who are struggling and would benefit from assistance or advice, will be reluctant to seek help for fear of finding themselves on the wrong side of the law. To me, it is nonsensical to subject a situation that is far from abuse to early intervention services. It is a waste of valuable resources and sends a wrong social message.
In terms of Article 18 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child –
“2. For the purpose of guaranteeing and promoting the rights set forth in the present Convention, States Parties shall render appropriate assistance to parents and legal guardians in the performance of their child-rearing responsibilities and shall ensure the development of institutions, facilities and services for the care of children.”
Surely the Department of Social Development should be putting measures in place to support, assist and equip parents, rather than hovering over them with a big stick waiting for them to dare to discipline their child.
The resources that will be wasted in prosecution and unnecessary early intervention could be better utilised in training teachers, day mothers, community workers and parents on how to recognise signs of abuse and what to do about it. The Department could also develop parenting programmes to be run at community level that are aimed at providing tools for discipline, and general advice or assistance.
Sweden was the first country to legislate against parental corporal punishment, and it did so in tandem with a huge campaign of social re-education. If the Department of Social Development is determined to take this route, I suggest it first does the groundwork of social education – not by putting up posters explaining the rights of the child, but by working with families at community level to better equip parents.
I do wonder at the State’s sense of urgency to interfere in this respect. Of the 196 countries in the world, only about 19 have prohibited parental corporal discipline. Why are we running so hard to keep up with the imaginary Joneses?
When I think of the challenges faced by our mothers and grandmothers to raise the next generation in South Africa, I am dumbstruck by our Government’s determination to add more hurdles. Government has taken away free formula to compel mothers to breastfeed. There is talk about taking away the foster care grant from destitute grandmothers. Now they want to make criminals out of mothers who dare to discipline.
Someone needs to stand up for our citizens.
Yours in the service of our nation,
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP