Vuyo Mvoko | There’s no reason to beat a child
I must have been 11 or 12 years old when my grandfather’s health deteriorated so rapidly, he could hardly get out of bed.
He was in such a bad state that he did everything – and I mean everything – in bed and other than my grandmother, I was the only person he allowed to bath and change him.
Both my grandparents were almost of pensionable age, but not quite there.
Because of illness, my grandfather immediately qualified for a government grant, but not my younger grandmother, who was forced to continue working as a domestic worker, at least until she, too, could qualify for a grant on the grounds of age.
A decision was then taken, that we would not lock the doors and leave my very ill grandfather alone, in our three roomed matchbox home in New Brighton.
Instead, I would immediately stop schooling to take care of him, this while my grandmother continued to work three days a week for Miss Green in Havelock Street, Central, and two days for Mr Taylor in Park Drive.
So I checked out of school. I would wake up every morning, make mealie meal porridge for the two of us, bathe him, clean the house, cook our staple diet of samp and beans, sneak out a little in the afternoon to play when the rest of the neighbourhood kids were back from school. I made sure I came back in time for my grandmother’s arrival so I could go to the shop to buy beef stock and a block of dried Holsum fat to add to our samp.
This went on for about a month – until an uncle who had been retrenched at tyre manufacturer Firestone, and subsequently lost his wife and home, asked to come to stay with us.
It was agreed that he could, if he didn’t mind taking care of my grandfather while I returned to school.
The principal put a condition to my return – I was to be beaten (I think it was about 12 lashes) with a cane.
Not given any choice at all, the Mvoko's had to agree, for the most important thing for my grandparents at that point was that I would be back at school and without having to lose an academic year.
I felt cheated. It was grossly unfair that I had to endure that kind of punishment for having done something I felt was so noble, perhaps the best and only sacrifice I could make at the time for my grandfather.
Without making any attempt to verify our story, the principal said while my grandparents did a good thing by taking me back to school, the story was all made up.
It was a blue and blatant lie. So I had to take the punishment, administered by his deputy, who seemed to enjoy himself while at it, with the entire class watching.
There are of course scores of people in this country who’ve had to endure far worse calamities, with disastrous consequences, meted out by adults who simply didn’t care or think hard enough, or just take time to do their jobs properly.
Fortunately, in 2000 the Constitutional Court prohibited corporal punishment in schools, having done the same five years earlier with regard to detention centres.
And on Thursday morning, as I wrote this column, the Constitutional Court was hearing an appeal by civil society group Freedom of Religion South Africa, which believes that a 2017 South Gauteng High Court judgment which ruled it is illegal for parents to spank their children at home, “will make criminals of wellmeaning parents who love their children and only want what is best for them”.
The organisation believes the high court was wrong in abolishing parents’ common law defence of “reasonable and moderate” chastisement.
The original ruling was hailed as a landmark by organisations standing for the protection of children's rights.
Groups like the Children's Institute, The Peace Centre and Sonke Gender Justice – all of them represented at Thursday’s proceedings by the Centre for Child Law – believe beating children violates their rights and should be prohibited.
They assert also that studies have shown the long-term negative psychological, physical and social effects of the practice.
Between 1991 and 1992, a good 14 or so years after that punishment, I was an elected member of the student representative council at the then Vista University’s Zwide campus (now the Nelson Mandela University’s Missionvale campus). One day my former school principal showed up at our office, seeking our help.
Years earlier he had been found cheating during an exam and the university suspended him.
All he wanted now was our intervention for his crime to be expunged, so he could be allowed to write again and finish his degree.
I wasn’t interested.
Yes, out of revenge. Even more so after learning that he would during school hours take boys out of class and send them to go to place bets for him.
He was a compulsive gambler whose habit seriously and adversely affected his family.
As for the vice-principal who enjoyed beating me, he apparently never knew when to stop, turning his own child into a rebel, who later gave up on both education and life.
One hopes that the Constitutional Court will strike another blow to this last vestige of this crime.
No “reasonable chastisement” argument should be used, often by adults who want to hide their own deficiencies, to justify a wrong.
It’s up to us, as a people, to come up with humane, better and effective ways to deal effectively with the challenges that children may face, as they too grapple with becoming adults and worthy human beings...