FUNDAMENTALIST Christian teachers have lost their high-court battle to be allowed to spank schoolchildren. The court ruled the practice was "an affront to the dignity of all concerned".
Corporal punishment in schools was outlawed in 1996. But it remains very common, with Christian schools even claiming that it is a religious requirement.
Christian Education South Africa, an evangelical organisation representing 200 schools and 14,500 pupils around the country, brought a test case to court requesting that teachers have the right to spank naughty pupils through what it terms a "biblical behaviour modification".
Cesa's executive director, Ian Vermooten, said corporal punishment of misbehaving children was an "essential tenet" of Christian faith. Banning it infringed the religious right of parents to demand that teachers at Cesa schools disciplined their children, he said.
Port Elizabeth judge, Hennie Liebenberg, disagreed. He found that beating wayward pupils was not a central religious issue for Cesa schools. Also, spanking was applied only to boys in senior schools, an implicit acknowledgement of its degrading nature.
Parts of the Bible relied on by Cesa contained guidelines for parents about using the rod, but not anybody other than parents, he added, and Cesa members had accepted that not all biblical guidelines on children were appropriate these days.
South Africa's Constitutional Court has found whipping juveniles in prison to be unconstitutional. Liebenberg argued that spanking in schools has a similar purpose "to inflict acute physical pain", terror and distress. "It is no less an affront to the dignity of all concerned." Corporal punishment, even in the name of religion, was thus inconsistent with the Bill of Rights.
The department of education vigorously opposed the case, arguing that allowing beating at religious schools was against the philosophy of the constitution and public policy. Education minister, Professor Kader Asmal, commented that at his old school "teachers compensated for their lack of teaching by whacking us". Good teachers did not need corporal punishment.
But the minister has probably not had the final word. Public policy and the constitution are one thing; reality is another.
Many schools endure huge problems with discipline in South Africa's lawless but traditional society. Many teachers simply ignore the law, and many do not abide by Cesa's strict rules - use canes, straps, rulers or paddles; only five "firm strokes", parental consent; no injury to the child.
Recently KwaZulu-Natal's provincial minister of education, Eileen kaNkosi Shandu, said she wanted to bring back corporal punishment - and gave her son's school permission to slap him. Until there is discipline and safety in schools, many South Africans will agree with her.