Corporal Punishment in the Home Officially Banned in South Africa

The South African Constitutional Court has announced that corporal punishment in the home is henceforth banned.

Many countries already have such bans, in every setting, in place, including Sweden, Germany, Spain, Greece, and Venezuela.

Corporal punishment as part of the judicial system has been banned since the Abolition of Corporal Punishment Act came into effect in 1997. The same has been banned in schools since the South African Schools Act of 1996 (although a 2018 StatsSA survey showed that many children still endure it at schools, despite it being outlawed). However, up to yesterday, corporal punishment in the home (such as parents spanking their children as a form of discipline) was allowed.

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng delivered the ruling, upholding a 2017 high court ruling which made it illegal for parents to spank their children at home. This served as a dismissal of an appeal to the ruling, which was made by civil society group Freedom of Religion South Africa (For SA).

The ruling against corporal punishment in the home was unanimous.

What the ruling means

The previous defense of “reasonable chastisement” is now invalid, in cases where children take their parents to court over physical punishment. Such punishment is now viewed as abuse, and South African children may, as they wish, take their family members to court, and have confidence that the court should rule in their favor.

This means that parents who insist on continuing to use corporal punishment against their children can gain a criminal record for doing so.

What is physical punishment?

Physical punishment involves the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience bodily pain or discomfort, in an attempt to correct or punish the child’s behavior. This includes spanking, hitting, pinching, paddling, whipping, slapping, and so on.

What recent studies say

Dr Londeka Ngubane (who was appointed to serve on a transport panel for upcoming developments, by Minister of Transport Blade Nzimande earlier this year), as part of her thesis for a PhD in Criminology, stated that corporal punishment does not achieve what it intends to, and its use has become obsolete in democratic societies. She also stated that the problems that emanate from the persistent use of corporal punishment not only perpetuate the cycle of child abuse, but also impact negatively on academic performance and perpetuate a culture of violence in our vulnerable societies. She said that corporal punishment has adverse physical and emotional effects on children, and that it may actually exacerbate negative behavior for some children, not solve it.

Ngubane found that many children she spoke to as part of her study did not even know they were being victimized. This Constitutional Court ruling will hopefully go a long way to making that known.

The negative impacts of corporal punishment, used anywhere against children, has long been known. Acclaimed American pediatrician Benjamin Spock was the first pediatrician to study psychoanalysis to try to understand children’s needs and family dynamics. His ideas about childcare influenced several generations of parents – from as early as the 1920s – to be more flexible and affectionate with their children, and to treat them as individuals. Spock once stated, “Parents… have come to realize that children can be well behaved, cooperative, and polite without ever having been punished physically”.

Writing for Psychology Today, in 2014, psychiatrist Paul C Holinger says physical punishment of a child stirs up precisely the feelings one does not want. In general, one wants to elicit interest and enjoyment. Physical punishment stirs up distress, anger, fear, and shame. As we get older, these feelings combine with experience to form our more complex emotional life.

Holinger says that physical punishment is a major public health problem, with many adults still approving of it, despite compelling evidence that it does not work, it makes things worse, and there are effective alternatives.

There has been meta-analyses conducted on hundreds of studies on physical punishment. The data in this area have recently been summarized by Elizabeth Gershoff (Report on Physical Punishment in the United States, 2008) and Susan Bitensky (Corporal Punishment of Children, 2006). The evidence shows that physical punishment is stunningly harmful at every developmental level.

Studies show that children who are hit identify with the aggressor and are more likely to become hitters themselves, i.e., bullies and future abusers of their children and spouses. They tend to learn to use violent behavior as a way to deal with disputes.

One is not permitted to hit one’s spouse or a stranger; these actions are considered assault and battery. Why in the world should one be permitted to hit a smaller and even more vulnerable child? If hitting a child is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.

What are some alternatives for unruly children?

Dr Stefanie Röhrs from the institute, speaking on Cape Talk last year, said there were other tools parents could use to discipline their children. She mentioned a “timeout” and the taking away of privileges as some options parents could resort to aside from spanking children.

Röhrs said it was important to understand that a child was going through the development phase, meaning they were still unclear on the rights and wrongs of their actions.

She reiterated that people would never smack their adult relatives out of love, as that would clearly be seen as wrong. Many parents need to rethink their outdated views on how best to discipline their children, and consider the fact that just because it was done to them, does not mean it should be passed on to their children.

  1. Use words to explain your feelings. Use words to label your child’s feelings.
  2. Set a good example.
  3. Use positive reinforcement – boost your child’s self-esteem when they behave correctly.

More information on alternatives to physical punishment can be found in the American Psychoanalytic Association’s 2013 Position Statement on Physical Punishment, which you can view by clicking here.

Comments on the ruling

Children’s rights group The Children’s Institute lauded the ruling and said it was a clear victory for children’s rights and the end to the neglect of children’s rights.

In Parliament on Wednesday, the Social Development Portfolio Committee welcomed the Constitutional Court’s ruling on corporal punishment at home, further stating that this is a victory for South Africa as it is “unconstitutional to chastise children”.

Speaking in the National Assembly, SA President Cyril Ramaphosa welcomed the ruling, and said that beatings children received from parents and caregivers had become “a serious problem”.

The President said children need to be protected from violence in the home. “When we talk about violence against children we focus on sexual abuse, but the battering of children is a very serious problem that must also get sufficient attention. This judgment will send a strong message that the beating of children will not be tolerated at all costs,” he said.

In closing

In 1966, Martin Luther King Jr., as part of one of the last major marches of the American civil rights era, addressed a crowd in Yazoo City, Mississippi.

MLK said, “I’m sick and tired of violence… I’m tired of hatred. I’m tired of selfishness. I’m not going to use violence, no matter who says it!”


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Sources: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6], [7], [8], [9], [10], [11], [12], [13], [14], [15]. Image sources: [1], [2].