In response to calls from civil society groups, the South African government is considering outlawing corporal punishment – spanking – inside the household. According to a Business Tech report, “South Africa outlaws corporal punishment in all areas except for the home”.
This comes days after the Human Rights Commission recommended to the Department of Social Development that ‘physical disciplining’ of children be criminalized. According to Eyewitness News, the Commission believes enough had not been done in ‘private spaces’ to solve the problem of child abuse, in this regard.
Parenting by way of violence – of whatever degree – is parenting done wrong. When the hand is raised at a child for misbehavior or backtalking, the parent is in effect conveying to the child the lesson that disagreements, no matter how intense, can be solved not by rational engagement or non-physical chastisement, but through force.
A very light slap on the hand, which does not harm the child in the least, is in and of itself nothing much in the way of the development of the child. However, it is a subtle part of its maturing. In many cases children are not only slapped or spanked when they misbehave in a substantial manner, but for very petty offenses, especially in conservative homes where the parents’ point of departure is that they must be obeyed in all instances, no matter how reasonably or unreasonably they are conducting themselves. This violence, if reinforced enough, may be internalized by the child, leading to an acceptance of violence in general.
With that said, however, the chipping away of the privacy of the household by government cannot be allowed to continue unabated. The household, second only to the human person itself, is the most intimate and personal of spaces. The South African government has historically allowed itself much authority to be involved in the private home. Less than half a century ago, our government was forcefully moving people from one location to the next, violating their space. The government checked in on bedroom affairs, too, with the prohibition of interracial and homosexual intercourse.
Freedom is not extinguished with one dramatic swoop. Tyrants have long recognized that the best way to subjugate a population is to do so incrementally and gradually. When the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910, various constitutional arrangements allowed the provinces much leeway in their administration, striking a balance between federalism and unitarism. The Cape Province, most notably, was allowed to retain its coloured – and briefly, black – franchises. All provinces could decide their own education policy. Incrementally from thereon in, as could be expected, the national government, being dedicated to an Afrikaner renaissance, centralized the franchise and education, leading to the most oppressive period of South African history.
The same has been happening since the establishment of our new constitutional dispensation in 1993. With our notably weak Constitution in the center of it all, government has been encroaching on private affairs whenever it has had the chance. It has furthered the nationalization of privately owned and treated mineral resources, it has continued the Apartheid government’s push for control over higher education, it has made itself a party to every voluntary contractual agreement, it has tightened its hold on the ability of South Africans to own firearms, and, now, it intends to regulate parenting over and above the ordinary common law prohibition of child abuse. It has done all this, during and after Apartheid, with the explicit approval of civil society; the media; the policy institutes; the community forums; and the academia (quite masochistically).
Whether South Africans agree with the government or the Human Rights Commission on the appropriateness of spanking is beside the point. Government cannot rule based arbitrarily on the opinionated whims of its uninformed electorate. The crucial underlying identifier of a free society is the ability of individuals – alone or in common – to dissent from the dominant opinion without violent repercussions. As South Africans, we must be more responsible in what we ask the government to do on our behalf. Our own passionate opinions on any matter shouldn’t be enough for us to call for forceful action by the State.
Instead, we must ask ourselves whether we would appreciate the same being done to us, if the dominant opinion were flipped around. These same civil society entities oppose the death penalty and support homosexual relationships, yet, in both of these instances the dominant opinion is against them. In fact, it would not be surprising if a greater majority of South Africans believe the institution of corporal punishment is justifiable and necessary. The pro-’social justice’ portions of our civil society have an internal contradiction in this regard, believing themselves to be representatives of the majority, while in fact often finding themselves at odds with the majority.
What the majority thinks should be of little consequence. South Africa must be a society governed based on the rule of law. Legislating on the basis of political considerations and civil society pressure strikes at the very heart of the rule of law, violating various core tenets, such as certainty, predictability, and enforceability. No stable, prosperous or successful nation has functioned based on the notion of majority rule. The majority – or, in this case, the intellectual elite – can only rule to the extent that their opinionated rules don’t interfere with their non-consenting counterparts.