Often when we talk about “activism”, we imagine masses of people in the street, large-print banners and charismatic personalities talking over powered speakers in a manner that makes the crowds feel like they are changing the world TODAY. Don’t get us wrong, we think there’s an important place for that kind of activism in the public sphere because it helps to put issues onto the agenda and creates a situation in which the contradictions of dominant ideologies can be contested. But we’d like to talk about the less striking yet incredibly powerful everyday activism that is so necessary often lacking. Let’s think about that in relation to corporal punishment.

By the way, if you haven’t heard of Nthabiseng Mtambo, she was an 8-year old that was repeatedly beat on her head with a hosepipe for not doing her homework. She died. A later post-mortem reported that the reason for her death was because she had contracted meningitis. In a different incident, Sizwe Kubheka died after being beat with a belt by his teacher. According to local news “the incident left him deaf and with blood clots coming from his nose” before he eventually died.

Of course it doesn’t start there. It starts with teachers using hands, rulers, sticks, PVC pipes. It starts with a slap on the wrist or over the head. It starts with making kids kneel for extended periods (this one really gets us because it hails back to apartheid era torture) – that’s just the physical aspects, corporal punishment begins with the humiliation and insults (often gendered) and the deficit narratives about students in the ghetto (often raced).

Corporal punishment is one problem where everyday activism is lacking.

Why reporting matters.

Reporting corporal punishment on schools is a relatively simple thing to do but one which often gets ignored. Many students, because of fear, are reluctant to report incidents of corporal punishment to school management.  To make matters worse, when school management is complicit, students are put into the awkward position of having to appeal to circuit and district level managers to ensure that the matter will be dealt with appropriately. Of course, this is a huge ask for most teenagers who may then risk pushback from deviant teachers in the form of humiliating commentary in the classroom, manipulation of marks or targeted surveillance intended to “catch out” student leaders.

As a result, many cases of corporal punishment are left unreported and even those which are reported are rarely followed up on. This is unfortunate in a context where corporal punishment has been illegal for more than two decades and where laws and policy are generally progressive and aimed at creating healthy school and classroom environments. The policy battles have already been won, what lacks, is perspective transformation, contestation of the ideological positions undergirding bad practice and the effective implementation of policy measures.

Conversations about social justice and activism are in vogue these days but real change doesn’t only happen in front of the picket-line with placards held high. Some forms of change and activist work are quite mundane and banal…like filling out a form or reporting an incident. In the case of corporal punishment we are presented with a situation in which policy has afforded so much space but most of that space is left unoccupied and underutilised. The result being that corporal punishment continues to be widely practiced in the majority of schools in urban townships and marginalised spaces.

Why in the urban township?

Corporal punishment is not unique to working class communities but it is less evident in former Whites-only schools and high fee paying schools because both students and parents in such schools hold much social, cultural and economic capital and are incredibly quick to leverage their capitals when offended (Strike a child and the parent/guardian will be at school the next day, if not the same day) – Good on them for doing that!

Unfortunately, in our urban township schools, there is still a great deal of trust in teachers and schools, trust that is betrayed sometimes on a daily basis when corporal punishment is practiced or when teachers are absent. Moreover, while all people have cultural resources, the dominant and high valued capitals are not as readily present in the ghetto and as such even the disgruntled parent who does stand up, might find that their voice is disregarded. It would do us good to reflect on how many contemporary social issues which have been put into public debate (racist hair policies, university fees, gender based violence) have only managed to become important concerns when they disrupted, confronted or affected middle class sensibilities and communities.

We are so proud of the students we work with.

Our students have taken the time to understand the sociology and psychology of corporal violence. They have taken the time to make sense of current policy matters pertaining to corporal punishment and they have taken steps to educate their peers in assemblies and through pamphlet production. Most importantly though, they have started doing the very mundane and banal work of simply writing reports and sending them to relevant office holders at district level. They don’t leave it at that either, they are following up to ensure that the protocols are being followed at every level of government. With result, teachers at their schools are beginning to think twice about using corporal punishment.

It’s this kind of ‘boring’ rubber meets the road work that we also need to understand as the bread and butter of activism.

The placards put issues on the agenda.  It’s up to us then to do the work of transformation.

One without the other is not enough.

On adult support

So, this is where Bottomup comes in. Youth can and have changed the world. When they are organised and mobilised they can make a huge difference.  Just think about the history of children’s involvement in the civil rights movement in the US, the anti-apartheid struggle in SA or the high school student protests against neoliberal reforms in Brazil.  Even so, youth need to know that they are supported, that somebody has their back and that there is going to be someone who will be there when they say so. Bottomup creates spaces of support through weekly check-ins where we act as a sounding board, assist with policy research and help to link students to other supportive people who can further their cause. We act together with students, share our knowledge and skills with the intent to strengthen the cause. We organise camps, workshops, mobile classrooms and other events that seek that teach about critical social theory and promote social justice in school and society. We practice co-authorship, co-leadership and co-generative dialogue.

Much love! Forward to Freedom!