Sex scandals, amid accusations of conspiracy, strikes and ongoing fears of violence have dominated the news about trade unions over the past week and more. And the spectre of Wonderkop and the dead and crippled miners, both pre and post Marikana has continued to loom large.
This comes at a time when gang thuggery in regions such as the Cape Flats is once again escalating and when a number of police have been killed, apparently for their weapons. From Limpopo to the Cape there continue to be many instances of the rape and abuse of children. By any standards, we are a violent nation, across all ethnic and and social class lines.
While the struggles of trade unions in this country have all too often been marred by bloody conflict, much of this has not been of the making of the unions and their members; workers tend usually to be the victims in a system steeped for generations in the violent resolution of disputes.
All of which seems quite understandable, given our history. And before condemnation again arises about trade unions as a source of violence, a closer look at that history is perhaps appropriate.
Especially this week, the start of womens’ month, and when the airwaves have been abuzz with condemnation about planned legislation that would outlaw the beating, in whatever form, of children. The legislation is being drafted by the social development department with the assistance of the the Children’s Rights Project of the University of the Western Cape, supported by the likes of Childline — and the labour movement as a whole.
Under the draft law, parents or guardians could face a charge of assault if they “spank”, “paddle” or otherwise physically admonish any child, even in the privacy of their own homes. As social development minister Bathabile Dlamini notes: “If a husband beats a wife it’s a crime, but if a parent hits a child who is helpless, it’s not illegal.”
Childline’s Joan van Niekerk points out that the new law would also be an extension of existing domestic violence legislation. “As matters stand, we treat animals more humanely than children,” she says.
Such comments have seen numerous parents up in arms, along with the Inkatha Freedom Party, some religious fundamentalists and several teachers who have, since 1996, been forbidden physically to punish their charges. By and large, this “spare the rod and spoil the child” brigade are out of step, certainly with the teacher unions whose position reflects one of the demands of the 1976 student rebellion.
This is usually remembered as a revolt against the enforced teaching in the Afrikaans medium. Afrikaans was the trigger, but there were a host of demands, prime among them the abolition of corporal punishment that was an integral part of the schooling system.
South Africans, whether classified white, black, coloured or from whatever immigrant origin, all felt the effects of generations of this institutionalised violence and teachers, in particular, saw it as an acceptable means of instilling discipline. A prime example of how deeply ingrained was this attitude emerged when the ANC established a school in Tanzania for the exiles of 1976, staffed mainly by teachers from “back home”.
In line with the demands of the rebellious students and with the policies of donor states such as Sweden, the ANC school administration adopted a loudly trumpeted policy of no corporal punishment — and ignored this in practice. When I became the founding principal of the primary division, for example, I was presented with two implements deemed necessary: a bell and a strap, both of which I mislaid on the same day.
But, on the ground in South Africa, attitudes were slowly changing, among students, teachers and in the broader labour movement. Along with what is generally seen as progressive labour legislation and a rightly lauded constitution, a Schools Act was passed in 1996. The teacher unions had a direct input to this legislation that forbade corporal punishment at schools.
“The proposed legislation is, therefore, a logical extension of the Schools Act,” says SA Teachers’ Union (better known by its Afrikaans acronym, SAOU) chief executive, Chris Klopper. For more than a decade, the SAOU has been staging regular workshops for members, instructing them on the latest teaching methods and on alternative means of discipline.
The workshops have apparently paid dividends. “It is only every now and then that we get an isolated case of some form of assault, usually a slap,” says Klopper.
The National Professional Teachers’ Organisation (Naptosa) also conducts regular workshops illustrating how counter-productive is corporal punishment — and with similarly good results. “But the problem is that the concept of corporal punishment has been embedded for so many years,” says Naptosa president, Basil Manuel. “The education department also did not equip teachers to deal with any other means of discipline.”
The country’s largest teacher organisation, the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) also complains about the lack of adequate training for teachers. Sadtu spokesperson Nomusa Cembi points out that many teachers, seeing detention after school as the only alternative means of discipline, also feel that they are being punished.
“We support the legislation, but there should be much more education of teachers,” says Cembi who admits it is difficult to monitor breaches of the existing law, especially where parents request teachers to “give a hiding” to learners who misbehave.
Coming from a recent tradition where flogging, by heavy or light canes was routine punishment in police stations around the country, where the sjambok ruled in many farming areas, South Africa has come a long way. But, as one erudite teacher pointed out, we should have learned lessons, even from the ancient past.
More than 2 000 years ago, the Roman educator, Quintilian opposed corporal punishment, pointing out: “It is disgusting, fit only for slaves and undoubtedly an insult.” He added: “If you coerce the child when he is young by means of blows what will you do when he is a young man who cannot be compelled through fear?”