Cape Town — After South Africa’s Constitutional Court last month upheld a high court ruling that corporal punishment at home is unconstitutional, many parents protested that they were raised that way – it’s African culture, after all. But is it an African tradition to spank or beat children? And does it produce responsible adults?

“No!” says the data. Physical discipline is not rooted in African culture but in colonialism. Studies show that hitting children contributes to domestic and community violence and can even reduce children’s intellectual capacity.

The problem is global, and its harmful effects are multi-generational.

“When children are exposed to violence in the home, there’s a high possibility for a boy when he grows up, to become a perpetrator and for a girl when she grows up, to become a victim”, said Isabel Magaya, a researcher at the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria.

Divya Naidoo, Child Protection Programme Manager for Save the Children South Africa, sought to allay fears of criminal prosecution against parents. “It’s not in the best interests of the child to have their parents charged and put in jail” she said. “We’re looking at getting those parents some good programming so that they can learn new ways of disciplining children.”

Spanking is a colonial import

“The beating of children was brought to this continent through missionaries and missionary schools, said Sonia Vohito of the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, and the custom became entrenched across the continent. Pre-colonial means of discipline should be remembered and applied, she said. “We need to get back to traditional practices of how children were raised”, teaching values through storytelling and illustration.

Carol Bower of the Quaker Peace Centre agrees. The Centre’s Peace Hub in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township engages youth and parents around issues of family and community violence. “From all the records that we can find, physical discipline of children was not in African culture before slavery,” she said. “The missionaries, the colonisers and the slave traders are what brought corporal punishment to Africa.”

report by the Africa Child Policy Forum, based in Ethiopia and chaired by former Mozambique President Joaquim Chisano, found that most African children experienced physical violence in schools – an estimated 92 per cent in Togo, 71 per cent in Ghana, 60 per cent in Kenya and 55 per cent in Senegal.

A large study of schools in several West African countries found that where corporal punishment was not practised, pupils scored five points higher, on average, on IQ tests. The findings may also apply to physical discipline at home. “When you’re fearful, your adrenaline spikes,” said Bower. “Every adrenaline spike kills cells in a developing brain.”

There’s good evidence, said Wessel van den Berg, who manages a Positive Parenting unit at Sonke Gender Justice and coordinates the MenCare Fatherhood Campaign, that “children who are exposed to corporal punishment regularly have lower educational outcomes than children who are not.” To the extent that corporal punishment was used in pre-colonial African societies, he said, it “was exacerbated by the slave trade and by colonial influence on slave-dependent countries. In South Africa, it was exacerbated by the apartheid regime.”

With the Constitutional Court ruling, South Africa becomes the 57th nation to outlaw corporal punishment – but only the fourth in Africa, after South Sudan, Benin and Tunisia. Supporters hope that non-violent discipline at school and at home will help erode a culture of violence in society – including conflicts around elections and sexual violence against women.

The financial cost of abuse

According to a 2016 study commissioned by Save the Children, which aimed to quantify the ‘social burden’ of abuse, violence against children cost South Africa’s economy over $15 billion in 2015, about 6 per cent of South Africa’s gross domestic product at the time.

Professor Cathy Ward, a psychologist at the University of Cape Town, said, “These findings highlight how preventing violence … is also an effective investment that will yield many social and economic returns for South Africa.”

In Nigeria, a 2014 National Violence Against Children Survey found that about half of the country’s children had experienced some form of physical violence by a family member or community member by the age of 18. The resulting loss of earnings and productivity was calculated to be over $6 billion U.S. Those numbers are sure to have risen steeply, as conflict and insecurity have grown, largely from Boko Haram attacks in the northeast and conflict between pastoralists and farmers in central Nigeria.

Kenya’s National Gender and Equality Commission and UN Women reported in 2016 that the cost of gender-based violence to survivors was over $400 million U.S. a year. The report said such violence is “perhaps the most widespread and socially tolerated human rights violation in Kenya”.

Even in peaceful Namibia, where the government ratified the international Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990 and the Global Gender Gap ranked the country a respectable 16 out of 145 countries in closing the gender inequality gap, 73 per cent of children in four regions surveyed said they had suffered corporal punishment at school. UNICEF warned that, especially in poorer communities, children are beaten, bullied and “are not taught peaceful conflict resolution”- posing a potential problem for the future.

Fighting back against rising violence

Kariuki, Kenya’s former cabinet secretary for public service, youth and gender, cited the growth of gender-based violence in 2018, saying there had been 357 cases reported in the first month alone. Akili Dada, a Nairobi-based feminist leadership organization, reported that femicide – the intentional murder of women – including by domestic partners, also is increasing in Kenya. The @deadwomen_ke Twitter account keeps a running tally of murdered women and girls, noting that the number this year, as reported in media stories alone, was 78 by early October.

World Health Organization statistics show South Africa’s femicide rate as nearly five times higher than the global average. AfricaCheck reports that according to data from 2017/2018, a woman is murdered in South Africa every three hours.

In September, while Nigerian and South African political leaders were dealing with xenophobic attacks against Nigerians in South Africa, their citizens were rallying to protest violence against women in both countries. ThisIsAfrica, a Kenyan-registered community trust, reports that the protests used the rallying hastags #ProtectPHGirls in Nigeria and #IAmNext in South Africa.

There were demonstrations at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and the World Economic Forum in Cape Town and a Peace Walk march down the streets of Port Harcourt, in Nigeria’s oil-rich but impoverished Niger Delta. As South African President Cyril Ramaphosa convened a joint sitting of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces on gender-based violence, black-shirted women demonstrated outside, calling for shelters for abused women and children.

The Namibian Women’s Lawyers Association is providing free legal advice to people who have experienced sexual violence. First Lady Monica Geingos is a supporter and founding member of Namibia’s #MeToo Alliance, a patron of the country’s Shack Dwellers Federation, and a UNAIDS special advocate for young women and adolescent girls. But she is quick to say that meaningful, long-lasting change requires a broad social movement, as well as support by leaders in government, business and faith groups.

Mr Van den Berg believes the Constitutional Court has established a framework for changing behaviour. What is needed now, he said, “is a large, well-coordinated public education campaign to accompany the ruling – first, to make the ruling known and understandable and secondly, to also educate parents and caregivers about what discipline should look like in terms of taking care of children.”

Ms Magaya said that countries that adopt such an approach are not only helping children but also the larger society. “If we look at the [court] judgement in the context of the high levels of violence in South Africa, you’d be able to understand why we need that change, because we’re hoping that 15-20 years from now, South Africa would not be as violent a society as it is,” she added.

Andre van Wyk and Jerry Chifamba are staff editors for media partner AllAfrica.com. AllAfrica Foundation’s Tami Hultman contributed to the article.