Not too long ago, my Brazilian wife, our four-year-old daughter and I went to watch a show at Montecasino in Johannesburg.
While in the customary queue for the female bathroom during the interval, she witnessed a woman (a mother, presumably) beating up her son with her fists. He appeared to be around 10 years old. The entire queue just looked on.
Beating a child (spanking, disciplining, call it what you will) is illegal in many countries, including Brazil. But the incident at Montecasino occurred before the decision of the Johannesburg High Court of YG v S, so what the mother did was, in the eyes of many, neither illegal nor wrong in South Africa.
The YG v S court decision, of course, was the controversial one which outlawed spanking.
The boy was naughty and he deserved the beating, most probably. The mother and all the pleased onlookers believed God would expect her to beat, sorry, to discipline the boy.
After all, if she were not to assault, sorry, discipline, her child, he would turn out as a violent, uncontrollable criminal, who might just beat up adults. No sparing of the rod (or – in this case – the fist) here.
Up to the decision of YG v S, the mother’s assault of her son would have been excused as “reasonable chastisement”.
Now the judges in the Johannesburg court have said: no more. If you raise your hand to your child, then you commit the crime of assault. It doesn’t matter if it is “a loving smack, as long as it’s not abuse”. It remains assault.
The case has been discussed in-depth in the SA press, and even the BBC reported on it. I don’t need to repeat the facts. Beating a child offends many of constitutional rights of a child, the court found, but I now want to focus on the right of dignity.
The court quoted the following from another Constitutional Court case (S v M):
“Every child has his or her own dignity. If a child is to be constitutionally imagined as an individual with a distinctive personality and not merely as a miniature adult waiting to reach full size, he or she cannot be treated as a mere extension of his or her parents… [T]he enjoyment of the right to childhood is the promotion of the right as far as possible to live in a secure and nurturing environment free from violence, fear, want and avoidable trauma.”
The court found that children are individuals in their own right. They are entitled to the protection of bodily integrity.
Maybe when our society realises this, we will then also reach the required maturity to respect them as individuals who are entitled to protection and to raise them without resorting to violence.
Emile Myburgh is a Johannesburg-based lawyer. He has a daughter, whom he does not smack.