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School CP - October 1999

Corpun file 4827 at

The Teacher, Johannesburg, October 1999

Some Christians still insist that corporal punishment is a religious right

Brutality in the name of God

By Gavin Foster

Now that the Eastern Cape High Court has turned down an application by Christian Education South Africa (Cesa) to have the banning of corporal punishment in schools declared unconstitutional, the cane will finally be consigned to the cupboard. Or will it?

Cesa now intends appealing for the right to take the issue to the Constitutional Court on the grounds that it infringes upon their religious beliefs, and in the meantime many of the association's 209 member schools will continue to beat children.

"Basically, what we've said to our schools is that they need to establish what the parents believe on the issue," says Ian Vermooten, executive director of Cesa. "Then they need to try to implement that belief without contravening the (South African Schools) Act. Right now I would guess that some of them still give hidings, but with the parents present. They have to look at the situation very carefully."

That "very carefully" is a massive understatement. Since January 1 1997 no person -- including a parent -- may administer corporal punishment upon a learner at any South African school. Anybody who does so is guilty of a criminal assault, and if convicted will bear that record for the rest of their days. In the face of this, how do conservative Christian schools intend carrying on with corporal punishment?

"The sort of thing they're looking at is that there may be a church office or somewhere else off the school premises where they may take the child for the parents to administer a hiding in the presence of the head of the school," says Vermooten. "That's something the schools will have to work through for themselves."

[Picture removed after complaint by photographer on copyright grounds -- C.F.]

When corporal punishment was banned many Cesa schools reacted by drawing up agreements between themselves and their pupils' parents, granting teachers permission to impose corporal punishment upon their children and ignoring the fact that nobody can sign away the rights of a child.

One such school is Highway Christian Academy in Pinetown. In March this year a parent, Linda Soanes, laid a charge of assault against a monitor at the school, Val Ryan, after her 13-year-old grade 8 daughter came home with a "biblical correction" (a euphemism for corporal punishment).

Soanes says that, although she had signed the agreement, she had told the school's headmaster, Chris Barnard, that if her daughter needed to be punished she wished to be notified in advance, and this had not been done. She was also shocked by the extent of the bruising caused by the paddling.

Barnard made no bones about his belief that the government was interfering with God's word as proclaimed in Old Testament verses such as Proverbs 23:13: "Do not be chary of correcting a child. A stroke of the cane is not likely to kill him."

"Who is more important? The Bible teaches us that God is ultimate even over the government," Barnard said in a report in a Durban newspaper after the charge was laid. "From a Christian perspective I'm not really concerned."

Soanes removed her daughter from the school and heard no more until she was told that the charge had been withdrawn, apparently because she had given the school written permission to punish her daughter. She contacted the Human Rights Commission, and the case was reopened, with a court hearing now scheduled for October 21.

On the face of it the prosecution's position is strong -- they have a signed, dated and witnessed report from the school, stating when, where and how the teenager was beaten and why. According to Steve Pete, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Natal, the agreement signed by Soanes with the school is of no legal worth whatsoever because it is impossible to "contract out" criminal liability. "Beating a child is a criminal offence, and it remains an offence no matter what documents were signed," says Pete.

He also holds out little hope for those who intend to carry on beating children off school premises. In terms of common law, South African parents have the right to subject their children to "moderate and reasonable chastisement" which must also be "restrained and tenable". A scenario where teachers and parents collude to take children away from school to thrash them at another venue is unlikely to meet these criteria.

Teachers who ignore the law while waiting for a ruling from the Constitutional Court cannot in the meantime expect to be given much sympathy in a criminal court. Constitutional Court Judge Pius Langa stated at an earlier hearing, when Cesa applied to leapfrog to the front of the queue for a Constitutional Court ruling, that he did not agree that there was any greater urgency arising from the fact that some teachers could expose themselves to prosecution because they believed the banning to be unconstitutional and thus ignored it.

"If they choose to take the risk of beating children knowing full well that the provision's constitutionality is under challenge, then there should be no complaint if appropriate consequences follow their deliberate conduct," he said.

And it doesn't stop there. Teachers who break the law could find themselves being sued civilly for pain, suffering and damages; and as accessories to the assault, parents, headmasters and members of schools' governing bodies could join them in the dock.

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