Saturday, 5 May 2012


by Malaika Wa Azania on Monday, April 23, 2012 at 10:10pm ·
Ngwana yo sa reetseng molao wa batsadi o tla reetsa wa manong” – Setswana proverb
It sounds almost sadistic, and some might argue that it is, for one to be feeling such overwhelming nostalgia for corporal punishment. But as I reside in the comfort of my residence at Rhodes University’s Milner House, I cannot help but walk down memory lane to a time when corporal punishment was as normal as teenage alcoholism has become in our country. I find myself missing the good old days when a child was the property of his/her community, when teachers were the most feared people, and when the fear of being confronted with a sjambok or duster forced many of us to put an effort into our school work. Today, corporal punishment has been outlawed. Some people sat in a roundtable somewhere and decided that act of rehabilitation is “abuse”, that children must not be scolded as that is a “violation of their rights”. How “progressive” our Constitution is, that it even allows for children to open cases against their parents for scolding them.
My first experience of corporal punishment at school happened in pre-school. I was a bubbly six year old at the time, suffering from a severe case of verbal diarrhoea. As the class captain of Grade 0 A in Tshimologo Junior Primary School in zone 9 Meadowlands (Soweto), I was guaranteed to be located anywhere where a discussion of some sort was taking place. On that particular morning, my teacher, “Mistress” as she was called, was late for class and it was my responsibility to ensure that everyone was completing some work or just keeping quiet. But I was not interested in silence, nor did I regard whatever work was given important. This must be the explanation for why, when I had to be seen to be maintaining order, I was the cause of the disorderly behaviour of my classmates. Anyway, we huddled in a corner, a group of about twenty tiny human-beings with grass covering their uniform (Even at that early hour, grade zero students were guaranteed to be found dirty. Every morning before assembly, we would be found playing netball, soccer or “diketo” at the school quad, with no care in the world about the state of our cleanliness). Piercing laughter could be heard from across the foyer (the grade zero class was located not too far from the main reception office foyer), but at the time, this was of course, unknown to us. We were just a bunch of 6 year olds having fun, teasing one another (With those stupid jokes that kids in the township like to tell, that always begin with “One day one day”?). The next thing, “Mistress” was standing at the door, her imposing figure looking very diabolical in the midst of such petite bodies. Anger was written all over her face. A sudden hush fell over the classroom as all of us scurried to our allocated desks (too late, of course), fereigning innocence. “Mistress” started yelling at us, telling us how disappointed she was in us for misbehaving in her absence. As the class captain, I was of course, the target of the vitriol that she was spewing. I was the bad learner who allowed others to fail. I was the monster that had placed a gun on the temples of more than twenty students and forced them to make noise. I was the culprit. Everyone else was an innocent victim of my evilness. For some reason that I could not immediately comprehend, “Mistress” chose to punish me alone. That’s right. Despite the fact that all of us had been equal contributors to the noise levels that had pierced her ears all the way from the office foyer, I was singled out for punishment. “Mistress” took a wooden rod, instructed me to stretch out my right hand (the one that I use, by the way) and gave me a spanking so hard that 14 years later, I can still feel its viciousness just from thinking about it.
This was to be followed by many other spankings, which intensified as the levels increased. In grade three, two new methods of punishment were introduced, and I found myself at the receiving end of their brutality. My principal had introduced a rule that said that any child who gets a wrong answer in a test or any other written work was to be giving lashes equal in number to the answers missed. That is to say: if you wrote a test out of 20, and got 15 of the answers right, the teacher had to give you 5 lashes for the answers that you got wrong. Leaving a question unanswered was no alternative, for you would still get a beating as an unanswered question was regarded as an incorrect answer. The second method of punishment was what we called “go koropa le go freyfa”. That method may sound better when I explain it, in contrast to the “sugar cane” method introduced by the principal, but it was actually the most vicious. Here, if a student got less than 50% for a test, he/she would be forced to stay on afterschool and clean the entire classroom. Not just sweep or polish it. I mean CLEAN it thoroughly. One would have to ensure that the windows were sparkling, the bins were emptied, the gum that was stuck beneath desks was removed, the stairs leading out into the foyer were polished, the teacher’s and student’s cabinets were organised neatly, the walls were wiped clean, the shelves were dusted and all else in-between. This task would take almost 4 hours, even with the help of one’s friends. The fact that after all this, one still had to walk for almost 20 minutes with a heavy backpack to get home, made all the more diabolical. It was a very difficult time.
The learners at Tshimologo Junior Primary School were the most diligent, committed and above all, respectful of learners I have ever known. Perhaps the fear of “go koropa le go freyfa” and the sugar cane put the fear of the ancestors in our hearts, to a point where contemplating intellectual idleness became taboo. I mean, it stands to reason that if you know that you are going to be confronted with punishment when you perform unsatisfactory, you will invest a lot of effort ensuring that you meet the set standard, high though it may be. Or just maybe, corporal punishment truly had favourable results on young children, if employed to rehabilitate rather than to condemn. Whatever the reasons may be, the students of my junior primary school almost always got straight distinctions. They respected authority and they knew that the only rule for prosperity in life, was to “Dira tiro ya gago, reetsa batsadi bag gago ka nako tsotlhe, tlhompha bagolo, gore malatsi a gago a botshelo a oketsege” (do your work diligently, listen to your parents at all times and respect your elders, so that your days on earth can be increased), as my “Mistress” would always tell us.
In 2002, when I was in grade five, I was sent to a multi-racial school in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg (Auckland Park/Melville). Naturally, I was terrified of the new, foreign environment. I was a township girl who could barely construct a coherent sentence in English, and here I was, being sent to a dominantly White school, where English was the language of instruction and Afrikaans, which I had never even heard before, was the second language. Upon arrival, I was greeted by a sight I had never before though possible: little grade five learners TELLING their teacher why they COULD NOT complete their work. Excuses ranged from “I had netball practice, ma’am” to “I arrived home late last night and was too tired to do my work after watching Generations”. At Melpark Primary School, these justifications were legitimised by teachers who let them slip unquestioned, and normalised by students who repeated them too often. I was always in awe of this world, for it was so different from my own. At Tshimologo Junior Primary School, not only would you dare not bring completed work to school, you would opt to sleep past mid-night, on a winter night, as you write your homework under the watchful gaze of candlelight. Whether your arm was broken or you had come down with a severe bout of influenza, your work was guaranteed to NOT suffer. NOTHING could make anyone not complete homework. It was just unthinkable.
Another abnormality that I encountered at my multi-racial school was a phenomena called “back-chatting”, where a student could actually engage in a verbal match with a teacher! Grade five students could look a teacher straight in the eye and say: “Ma’am, you are wrong!” or “I won’t do that!” How odd this seemed to me at first, that a twelve year old could TELL an educator that he/she is wrong, or that he/she (the student) would not do something that the teacher had asked them to do. In fact, it was even odd to me that a teacher had to ASK students to do things. At Tshimologo Junior Primary School, that would NEVER have happened. Teachers did not ask, they commanded. Students did not negotiate, they obeyed. I recall how I was forced to participate in the annual athletics competition that pitted students from all schools in the township of Meadowlands together. Despite the fact that I was a very fat child who could barely mount a stairwell without heaving like an exhausted car engine, I was commanded to compete with the Marion Joneses of Ndofaya (as my township is affectionately called). I had no choice. I ran in that competition every year, embarrassing myself every year (I always came out last, much to the laughter of other children) and obeying every year. The thought of even fereigning illness never at any point crossed my mind.
Interestingly, the students at Melpark Primary School were intellectually challenged (for lack of a better word). Marks like 50%, which in Tshimologo Junior Primary School were regarded as a hopeless fail, were a norm. Being unable to do basic arithmetic was regarded as a “weakness” rather than a result of insufficient effort. In Tshimologo, the teachers always told us that none of us was stupid (though this was forgotten when one was unfortunate enough to get 60% for a test. On this rare occasion, one would be lambasted and insulted by “Mistress”, and told that he/she would never become a successful person in life), and therefore, none of us had an excuse for obtaining less than the highest child in the class. In Melpark, all sorts of reasons why a child could get away with a dismal 50% in a spelling test were provided: “She is battling to understand the concepts”, “He is a slow learner”, “He is a left-brain, so languages and theory are not his strongest points” etc.
While I understand the reasons for the abolition of corporal punishment in schools, and to some small extent even agree with them, I cannot help but remember a time when corporal punishment served as a motivating factor for excellent academic performance. In a country where a student needs only 40% for three subjects and 30% for four to receive a matric exemption, one cannot help but wonder what it would have been like if excellence was forced rather than hoped for. I wonder if the knowledge that I would be confronted with a sugar cane if I failed my exams or got below 80% would have made me a better student in matric. I wonder if Mathematics and Physical Science would be so greatly failed if teachers were allowed to give students a lashing for failure to produce good work and to study beyond just what the textbook contains. Maybe even then, we’d still have a rebellious youth that refuses to study even when given the opportunity and resources to. Maybe even then, we would have a country that celebrates a 70.2% matric pass rate that boasts less than 24% admission to Bachelor’s Degree university entries. Maybe even then, we would have a country where students go on strike to have their marks increased just for the hell of it…I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that I was a more dedicated student between grade zero and grade four than I have ever been in my life. What I know for sure is that I was driven by fear in more ways than I can ever be driven by the prospects of simply being the best student in my class. And what I do know for sure, is that there is something rather odd about a country where children make rules that adults must follow…

Malaika wa Azania
A product of OBE, NSC and all other anti-education curriculums

1 comment:

  1. Why Male Primary School Teachers are not doing work longer more? What's the reason you are thinking at the top? Is it Skills or Salary?