Corporal punishment: let’s learn from history

Posted on January 27, 2017


There is nothing new in the still raging debate in South Africa about corporal punishment. It surfaced with a vengeance this month following reports of a primary school learner being crippled after a beating by a school principal.

It was an extreme example, but the department of education admits that corporal punishment of one kind or other is still prevalent in many schools, especially in the rural areas. Yet physical beating of students has been illegal in South African schools since 1996. This was three years before it was finally banned in all schools in Britain and was in line with a long promoted principle of the governing ANC.

However, it is a principle that has, throughout its history, been observed in the breach. Hypocrisy has ruled as principle and practice deviated.

During the great student rebellions in 1976, there was widespread rejection of corporal punishment that echoed the approach of the Roman scholar, Quintillian. More than 2 000 years ago, Quintillian argued that corporal punishment was fit only for slaves.

Many of the “1976 youth” fled across South Africa’s borders, a fact that persuaded the exiled ANC, newly revitalised by the student rebellion, to establish a school that would provide “education for liberation”. Such a school it was said, would be based on the modern, democratic, principles promoted by the continent’s oldest liberation movement.

Established on a former sisal estate at Mazimbu, north of Morogoro, donated by the Tanzanian government, it was to be a radical alternative to both Bantu and Christian National Education. Corporal punishment would have no place in such an environment that would also abolish the distinction between mental and manual labour.

These were principles to gladden the hearts of donors from countries such as Sweden, where even corporal punishment by parents of children was banned in 1979. Such a school was also what many of the students dreamed of.

However, the legacy of British colonialism and of the authoritarian, strap and cane wielding mission schools of South Africa’s past remained — and remains — a factor. It was these schools that most of the hierarchy of the ANC identified as models of a better school.

On paper, therefore, the project, the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (Somafco), seemed to be the acme of modern pedagogy. And it was a public relations success.

But the promise to create a school based on self-sufficiency and that would mld mental and manual labour in a co-operative environment never eventuated. Brutal physical punishments were often the order of the day and manual work was used as a form of punishment.

Initial egalitarianism among ANC staff soon gave way to teachers receiving grossly disproportionate privileges, including pay. Most of the manual work at the complex — including domestic work in some staff houses — was also carried out by Tanzanians.

Although the public relations exercise persisted, Somafco was a great failed opportunity to create the basis for a truly progressive and democratic schooling system. Instead of a model, it became a mirror image of traditional strap and cane wielding, “chalk and talk” teaching.

I was there from 1980 and left with my family in 1982 after a particularly brutal episode where three young women were sjambokked so badly that two had to be hospitalised. Although the myth persists that these were isolated incidents, those parts of the ANC archives available, reveal a different story.

Many of the students were also angry at the regime in Somafco and, even in the early years, there was a mood of sullen rebellion. In later years this rebelliousness included large scale truancy from classes and reports of thieving.

In 1985, for example, the situation had got so bad that it was decided that radical measures would be needed to “restore order”. But instead of realising that the problem lay with the authoritarian and often brutal system, the solution was to bring in “the big stick”.

That “Big Stick” — referred to as such by ANC president OR Tambo — was a man notorious for his brutality and abuse of women, the late Andrew Masondo. His extremely controversial tenure at Somafco eventually resulted in his removal. An official commission of inquiry was also held, but the findings have never been released.

However, throughout this frequently shameful period, a plethora of sound policies were formulated by ANC educationalists, usually living and working outside Africa. Many of the students also arrived with innovative ideas.

Much the same applies today. The difference is that many educationalists promoting sound policies are now living and working in South Africa, within universities and the non-governmental sector. In the wake of the latest case of extreme brutality at a primary school, they should be listened to — and not only on the issue of sparing the rod.

•  Terry Bell was the founding principal of the primary division at Somafco and co-wrote the first primary school curriculum adopted by the ANC.

Posted in: Commentary