Repository logo

Perceptions and experiences of learners on the banning of corporal punishment in South African schools: a case study of four township schools in the Pinetown district of KwaZulu-Natal.

Thumbnail Image



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



The use of corporal punishment is not a new phenomenon in the South African education system as it was, for a long time, recognised as a fitting form of punishment for ill-disciplined and disobedient children. The growing recognition that corporal punishment is an act of violence against children has resulted in the abolishment of this form of punishment in society and particularly in schools. However, regardless of criminalising corporal punishment, it appears to be a disciplinary measure that is persistently used by some educators. Historically and currently, the intimate connection between corporal punishment and discipline has not merely been a convention of human thinking, as this practice is given recognition in various definitions in dictionaries. ‘To discipline’ is habitually stated to mean ‘to punish’. The notion of ‘disciplining children’ also comes from entrenched common conceptions about children and their relationship with adults. Corporal punishment has, for a long time, been associated with the rearing and education of children and this practice thus pervades schooling across nations. In many societies, punishment is a term that is closely linked with the self-perception of teachers who feel that they must be ‘in control’ and have ‘the upper hand’ in order to be respected. This impression of control is evident in the widespread conception of education which is to ‘socialize’ children in ‘desirable ways’ of ‘sitting in a formal classroom’, ‘behaving’ in school, ‘following instructions’ from the teacher, talking only when asked to, and finishing tasks on time. Many South African teachers thus do not understand the true meaning of discipline. The unequal power relation between adults and children further enhances the problem, as children adopt cues of authority from school and home and begin to accept violence as a way of life. Over the past years, several gruesome acts of corporal punishment have come to light through media reports of some incidences which had led to the death of children. Due to fear, children often remain silent and submit to violence without questioning such acts of punishment. Many children display signs of deep hurt in their behaviour, but this often goes unnoticed, which exacerbates the cycle of violence. Research has reliably revealed that the use of physical punishment against children hampers the attainment of respect for discipline. This form of punishment seldom provokes children to act inversely, as it does not convey an understanding of what they should to be doing, nor does it produce any kind of reward for being upright. The fact that teachers and principals often have to repeat the administration of corporal punishment for the same offense by the same child attests to its ineffectiveness. In countries where corporal punishment has been abolished, there has been no indication that the disruption of discipline in schools has escalated. This goes to show that disturbances are conveniently and ubiquitously censured on children as they are very vulnerable and cannot defend themselves. Numerous studies have indicated that corporal punishment modifies and often destroys the self-perception of the victim. Teachers habitually beat children because they themselves were beaten when they grew up. Children thus acquire negative behavioural patterns from their teachers as they identify with them. Moreover, placing the blame on the previous generation of teachers who used corporal punishment to discipline children is pointless, as they were acting in accordance with apartheid and international laws or cultural customs that sanctioned this form of punishment under certain conditions. The notion of punishment is closely related to human conceptions of childhood and education. It is also a conventional datum that childhood is a concept that emerged in the nineteenth century. Passé widespread thinking related to children such as ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’, ‘children are empty vessels’ and ‘children need to be moulded’ persists in the mindset of many modern-day educators and has frequently underpinned the ideologies of established school practices. The duty to safeguard children from physical punishment lies in the hands of teachers, principals, education administrators and all other stakeholders and does not exclude parents. It was against this backdrop that a comprehensive review of relevant literature was undertaken and that individual interviews were conducted with fifty learners from four schools (two junior secondary and two senior secondary schools) in a selected township area in KwaZulu-Natal Province. The main aim of the study was to explore and thus understand learners’ views on the administration of corporal punishment regardless of the fact that it was legally abolished. It was envisaged that the interviews with the learners would elicit rich data that would enhance the researcher’s insight into their perceptions of the persistent use of corporal punishment as a disciplinary measure in their schools. The study was thus premised on the assumption, which had been strengthened by anecdotal and media evidence, that corporal punishment was still administered in some schools in South Africa and in schools in the study area in particular. A qualitative study design facilitated the collection of the desired data by means of semi-structured interviews. The interview schedule contained both open- and closed-ended questions. The data were analysed by means of the thematic analysis procedure which facilitated the illumination of various emerging themes. The analysis of the data was framed by three scholarly theories: the theory of the subculture of violence; the differential association theory; and the deterrence theory. The findings suggest that, regardless of the legal framework that criminalises the use of corporal punishment, the administration of this form of punishment persisted in the schools under study. The interview data were validated by the findings of preceding studies that had found that some educators still used corporal punishment despite their knowledge that it was banned by the South African government in 1996. The findings revealed that corporal punishment ranged in severity and for diverse reasons and that it had adverse physical and emotional effects on the learners. Conversely, a minority of the learners supported this form of punishment as they perceived it to be effective in curbing misbehavior in schools. The findings also suggest that some learners had become so insensitive to the pain inflicted by corporal punishment that their delinquent behavior was exacerbated rather than curbed.


Doctoral Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.