The debate at the Constitutional Court about whether parents should be allowed to administer corporal punishment to their children goes to the very core of what citizens would like society to be.
This democratic country was founded on the principle of human rights and the Constitution which guarantees those rights is regarded as one of the most progressive and enlightened in the world. Yet, it operates within a country where many people and communities are deeply socially conservative.
That is shown by the fact that the application to defend the right of parents to spank their children was brought by a civil rights group – Freedom of Religion South Africa (ForSA) – which has a deep Christian foundation. ForSA argued that Christian scripture prescribes this manner of discipline and to prevent parents from exercising that right was tantamount to religious discrimination.
The other side, including the justice department and various rights groups, hold the position that corporal punishment is not only child abuse, but also has a longterm negative impact on those who suffer it.
There is no doubt that children are victims of often horrendous abuse at the hands of parents. But, there are legal avenues open to deal with that and prosecute offenders for any egregious violence. However, if spanking is outlawed, a parent who gives even a small tap to a child could end up with a criminal record.
There is also the worrying possibility that, in the absence of a freedom to spank, parents might resort to much more psychologically damaging ways to discipline, including emotional abuse and demeaning a child … all of which could scar them for life.
This will not be an easy decision for the court to reach and, whatever is decided, people will be disappointed.