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'I was surprised by teachers' primordial urge for violence'

TWHAACK! "Ouch!" Thwaack! "Ouch!"

This is not an excerpt from Dickens's violent novel Nicholas Nickleby. It is, rather, a darkly humorous scene from the new movie Fools, based on Njabulo Ndebele's short novel of the same name, which opens on the circuit early in May.

Apart from its entertainment value, the scene where a school principal (black and right wing) is being sjambokked by a passer-by (white and right wing), in front of his pupils, becomes a springboard from which an investigation into corporal punishment is subtly launched.

According to South African law, corporal punishment at schools is illegal. But, in reality, many soft butts - ranging from ebony to ivory - are regularly visited by the cane.

Some people still believe that by sparing the rod you are nurturing a disrespectful brat.

I don't know about that. But the whole debate brings to mind some bittersweet memories.

In my first year at school, I got the hiding of my life (not from Miss Mhlongo who, you will recall, taught us that sprightly ditty, "All kaffir boys, eat mealie meal and do not think at all").

The culprit this time was Miss Khumalo. What a betrayal, I thought, a person supposedly from royalty hurting a royal hand!

But, being of royal breeding - Mzilikazi, the defeater of all southern African clans except Shaka's warriors, is my ancestor - I just clenched my teeth and refused to cry. Was she mad!

She continued caning me, swearing in the process. You see, I've always been quietly defiant and stubborn, like any self-respecting Zulu boy.

And, with what articulate people call the benefit of hindsight, I realise that what I did that February in 1973 was very stupid. I was three years too early - considering the fact that real defiance happened in June 1976. The woman, seeing that I refused to flinch or cry, continued beating my small hand until I bled.

She was fired two weeks later. You don't muck with royal blood, you see.

My taste of a teacher's cane did not end there. In the rage of my growing up, and the resultant stupidity which is euphemistically called ubu-clever, I had more appointments with the cane.

Later I realised that, in order to avoid those dates with the stick, I had to know my school stuff, arrive in time for classes, dress properly and behave in the best way possible.

As a result, I began to get the highest grades in class, an affliction which possessed me for the rest of my school years.

In Std 5, which was the bridge between higher primary and secondary school, I was to be surprised by teachers' primordial urge for violence.

There was a teacher whose name will remain buried in my bosom - at least for the moment - as he is still alive, still teaching higher primary, and generally bumps into me when I visit my parents in the township.

We called him "Die man kap die hout. Die hout wil deur die man gekap. Wie kap die hout? Deur wie wil die hout gekap?" and we thought he had a profound knowledge of Afrikaans.

In fear of his undying love for the use of the cane upon those who couldn't speak Simon van der Stel's language, I tried to speak Afrikaans like a black plaas japie from the Free State.

For some time Die Man was impressed. Luister nou, I was reading Elisabeth Eybers, N P van Wyk Louw, Uys Krige, Boerneef, the lot.

But Die Man did an about turn and started caning me for the simple reason that I knew everything while my classmates could not tell their toekomende tyd from their verlede tyd, could not recite "en daar sit 'n padda op sy kop".

I was supposed to help them memorise those four-page long recitations like Amakeia (op die skadu van die berge ...)

In the same year we had a teacher who would tell us to crouch on our desks and he would start caning our backs, for reasons which took me years to fathom.

And he would, as he warmed your back with his cane, intone: "Quba, Sathane" (crouch, you devil).

Now and then he would utter in what I would now call philosophical tones: "You know, you guys, I do not hate you. I'm teaching you resilience. When you grow up, you will learn to appreciate the value of what I'm doing to you." I think I can appreciate what was happening to that man - he was totally bored and frustrated with himself.

Pupils, being what they are, learned ways of coping with this abuse. In anticipation of cane visitations upon our backs, many of us learned to wear two T-shirts and a jersey underneath our nicely ironed sky-blue shirts.

You also learned to stuff pieces of paper underneath your pants - in anticipation of a caning on your behind.

And there were guys who were brutally frank: instead of ducking and diving about, they simply left school.

They happened to be in the majority. Today they are rich but I wouldn't share a beer with them because of the nefarious means by which they make their dough.

Which is why I fear much for the continued use of corporal punishment at schools.

Not many guys are as stupid as Fred to tolerate unnecessary caning.

I rest my long-tortured backside.

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