By Tafi Mhaka

So a mother slapped her child for not eating properly in a restaurant at Fourways Garden Shopping Centre and angered diners present there at the same time.

But this episode of violence against a child in a seemingly tame and tranquil situation is not unprecedented by any stretch of the imagination. Instances of parents disciplining children in supermarkets and malls are commonplace to be honest.

Watching children cry as mothers or fathers shout at them or slap them in the face is both embarrassing and rather uncomfortable to witness for most of us who rightly deplore child abuse.

The bigger problem is: What rights must parents be able to exercise in as far as raising their children is concerned? And what rights do children really have when it comes to protecting themselves from abusive parents at home – a place where they should feel safe and loved?

A slap in the face in public is cold and cruel, but it is just a tiny illustration of the larger challenge at hand in South Africa. Although children have rights under the Children’s Act 38 of 2005, statistics compiled by Save the Children, an independent development and rights-based organisation for children, report that children are under serious and sustained attacks from the adult population.

In the period 2011/2012, for example, 50 668 children were victims of violent crime, 793 children were murdered, 12 545 children were victims of assault and 25 862 children were victims of sexual offences.

But let us get back to the slap in the restaurant. The good thing is, some concerned strangers stood up for this poor child, who, it appeared, may have a disability. The unfortunate thing is, they do not live with this family. If further abusive behaviour towards this child does takes place, it will likely happen behind closed doors the next time.

The Children’s Rights Acts states that “every child has the right to basic nutrition, shelter, health care and social services, as well as the right to be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse or degradation”.

But can you imagine for a moment the sheer trauma that children who have mental or physical disorders suffer as a result of beatings meted out by selfish and aggressive parents – especially when nobody is there to raise a red flag in defence of the hapless children?

Laws like the Children’s Rights Act are enacted with the best of intentions, but if the individual who threatens the very life of a child, sleeps under the same roof as they do, is there a way you and I can help and make a difference still?

Yes there is. But be prepared to lose friends and family members – or colleagues – if you care to do something and save a young and innocent soul from abuse. Be ready to be called all sorts of disrespectful names for speaking out and caring for children other than those who bear your name or genes. Be willing to become the target of violence for standing up for an abused child.

Take a long, hard look at the people in your life. Listen to the many conversations people around you are engaged in. So many people out there believe in corporal punishment. Spare the rod and spoil the child is what they used to say in the past.

Children get a slap in the face or a belting – or worse – go to sleep hungry – or find themselves forced to sleep outside for coming home late or eating too much sugar – or lying about something trivial or important.

Children really do get the short end of the stick for being childish in nature and being the very children they are. And it never happens in isolation: Aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, friends, colleagues or strangers often witness – or receive accounts of such disciplinary actions – and say nothing for the most part.

Perhaps you will do something for once the next time you see that something is amiss with the child of a friend or relative?

The tradition of beating children is so well-entrenched in society; corporal punishment is still practiced in some schools – especially by conservative-minded mentors, who pride themselves in following prodigious traditions which they believe need not be tempered with, as they have stood the test of time and helped to produce successful alumni. This is in spite of the Schools Act of 1997, which prohibits the use of corporal punishment in schools.

When learners step out of line in such environments they get a thrashing. The headmaster, deputy headmaster or a senior official and sometimes  ordinary teachers may administer three or six whacks across the bum with a wooden cane as punishment for a certain infringement.

This type of punishment reinforces the legitimacy of structured and institutional violence as a disciplinary tool in schools – and predictably in other sections of society – like at home; where women and children often bear the brunt of violent and supposedly corrective punishment.

So why should we kid ourselves into believing that parents who were routinely punished through beatings as children – and who believe they have turned out very well in life – will not regularly beat up their children or wives or husbands as well, should they feel the need to discipline them?

People do not learn to become good fathers and mothers at some school of parenting after all.

But society does offer free lessons in parenting. The examples on show on TV, online or those published in newspapers and magazines; and the countless cases of abuse you see in your neighbourhood when couples fight or fathers hit their offspring for being ill-disciplined are just not the most glamorous examples of how adults should behave towards children in the toughest of times. It is not the fault of the media who do exceptionally well to highlight cases of child abuse, but what you will mostly see, hear or read about is rampant gender-based violence or neglect by parents or the end results of glorified and misplaced masculinity in action.

What stories comes to mind here? There is the pastor accused of raping a child in Parow 46 years ago. The man the media has dubbed the ‘Springs Monster’ and his wife who are both accused of abusing their five children. And here is a familiar tale: A US man leaving his son locked up in his car on a hot day while he does something unimportant in the office. His son died, unfortunately. And how about the woman from Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal who left her 6-month-old-baby alone at home so she could go out to a tavern for a night of drinking and partying? Or the 29-year-old man from Potchefstroom accused of beating his girlfriend’s five-year-old daughter to death?

The abuse is ineffably horrific for children. How is a five-year-old girl supposed to fend off the physicality of an attack from a full grown man? How much wrong can a five-year-old girl do to a man to warrant a fatal beating? And who can a five-year-old girl run to for help when she so desperately needs it?

The rights enshrined in the constitution for children and women do not filter through to the vulnerable souls who need protection the most that easily.

What are you doing to help minimise societal violence against children and women? That boy who is being raised to trust in corporal punishment as an acceptable form of discipline today might date or marry your daughter one day. He may just become your son-in-law and father your grandchildren as well. He may also strike your daughter and granddaughter if they ever, in his mind, misbehave or impugn his pride and dignity. He may, in a fit of violence, harm both your loved ones fatally one day.

The ‘I-know-how-to-handle-my-woman-best’ mantra is placing women at a serious risk of violence and mortal harm, as society chooses to be polite and respectful about intervening in matters of abuse, by not intruding upon the unnatural boundaries abusive men set so they can hide their reprehensible deeds behind the relative safety of the right to privacy in personal matters.

Are you happy with parents resorting to spanking as a disciplinary measure in homes in South Africa? Or would you be happy to lobby for nonaggressive disciplinary actions that can possibly have a positive impact on society as a whole?

That arbitrary slap in Fourways, was actually, a big stinging slap in the face for all of us in society who believe in fairness, integrity and doing good by all. The ‘I-know-what-is-best-for-my-children’ mentality is decimating young lives on an unparalleled scale, as society dithers over the rights of parents to smack their children when they deem it fit to do so.

It is time to speak out against the shameful wrongdoers and utilise the laws that have been put in place to prosecute people whom we may love or respect professionally: loved ones who assault the children in their lives.

What are you doing to help the children living in distress in South Africa?

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