Corporal punishment in South African schools has been prohibited since 1996. Yet all too often we still see reports of the law being broken — as in the most recent case, in which a 7-year-old girl from Olifantsfontein Primary was allegedly slapped so hard across the face by her teacher that she collided with the chalkboard and sustained damage to her eardrum.
According to News24, the teacher was arrested on Monday and the provincial department of education said she would be served with a notice of intention to suspend, pending an investigation into the allegation.
Senior researcher at the Children's Institute Stefanie Röhrs says: "The goal should not be to punish children who have been misbehaving. The goal should be to teach them discipline — [which is why] we say teachers should not use corporal punishment to discipline violence."
Röhrs highlights the major setbacks to hitting children.
"There are behavioural negative effects — corporal punishment increases aggressive behaviour in children. So children who are beaten have a higher risk of also using aggression on other children," she said.
According to her, there could also be mental health risks, such as children developing anxiety or depression.
She cautions, however, that there are also many challenges faced by teachers — including large classes and little training on how teachers can handle pupils without using violence.
Röhrs says another major concern is the lack of consequences for teachers who have used violence to discipline pupils.
"Where there have been reports of corporal punishment, there have to be consequences — and I think at the moment, the behaviour of teachers using corporal punishment is [considered] acceptable within the school, by the principal and governing bodies."
She says it is the job of provincial department to follow up on such cases.
National department of education spokesperson Troy Martens also condemns corporal punishment.
"It is completely outlawed and illegal, not only in the South African Schools Act, but also according to the Constitution of the country," she said.
What alternatives are there?
Children's rights and Positive Parenting Unit manager at Sonke Gender Justice Wessel van den Berg says there are multiple research studies on the harmful effects of corporal punishment — or spanking, as it is euphemistically referred to.
"One major [reason not to] is that it basically demonstrates to a child that conflict should be resolved by the person who is more powerful hurting the one who is less powerful," he told HuffPost.
According to Van den Berg, although corporal punishment might achieve immediate compliance, it is not long-term.
Role modelling and explaining do that better than corporal punishment.
He says there are better methods which could be used at schools. He says the department of education should start implementing its policies on positive discipline in schools. "Role modelling and explaining do that better than corporal punishment."
He makes examples of how other methods that can be used to discipline children.
"When asked about what the alternatives are, one example is the 'good schools toolkit' from Uganda, which has been used in 600 schools and has been shown to reduce the use of physical punishment in schools significantly," he said.
The Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg ruled that the common law defence of "reasonable chastisement" is not in line with the Constitution and no longer applies in South African law — which means that even parents who hit their children could be charged.
The judgment arises from an appeal by a father who had been found guilty of assault, because he beat his 13-year-old son.
According to an affidavit by Professor Shanaaz Mathews, director of the Children's Institute at the University of Cape Town concerning the matter, there are linkages between corporal punishment and other forms of violence.
"Experiences of corporal punishment undermine trust between a parent and child and can instil mistrust, aggression and a lack of empathy in the child. This sets the child up for a pathway of emotional insecurity, and increases the likelihood [of them abusing] their own children and intimate partners."