corpunWorld Corporal Punishment Research

ruler :  Features :  South Africa judicial page 6


Section 7


On this page:

7. What caning of juveniles involved

On other pages:

1. Introduction

2. Implements and terminology

3. Historical background and legislative timeline

4. Corporal punishment of "juveniles"

5. "Prison discipline" canings

6. What caning of adults involved

8. Interesting cases (adult)

9. Interesting cases (juvenile)

10. Statistics

11. Illegal punishments, kangaroo courts, native/customary courts

12. The deterrent effect of corporal punishment

13. The abolition of JCP


In 1934 the Supreme Court (Eastern District) drew attention to the sharp difference in South African law and practice between canings done in prison, usually of adult men (administered after due time was allowed for appeal, review, etc., usually a while after the beginning of a prison sentence) and those of boys (administered forthwith, at or near the court, by the police). The South African Law Journal reported at the time:

Whipping of Juveniles with Light Cane. -- In Rex v Roets [1934] EDL 73 an accused, aged 14, had been sentenced by a magistrate on 6 counts to receive a private whipping with a cane of 3 strokes on each count, i.e. 18 strokes in all. It was held, on review, quite correctly, that the sentence was illegal as being not "moderate" and exceeding the number (15) allowed by law, for by sec.353, Act 31, 1917, it is provided that a male child not exceeding the age of 16 years may be sentenced "to receive in private a moderate correction of whipping not exceeding 15 cuts; such correction shall be administered by such a person and in such a place and with such an instrument as the court may appoint."

But Gutsche, J., then proceeded to pass the following sentence: To receive a whipping of 8 cuts to be administered by the local gaoler in the local police station with a light cane. Now a gaoler is quite the wrong person to be ordered to inflict cuts imposed in terms of sec.353. He is debarred from inflicting lashes by Regulation No. 429 framed under Act 13 of 1911 which reads:

"In the event of there being no Prison Officer available to inflict punishment it shall be inflicted by a suitable person to be nominated by the Superintendent" (i.e. in country towns, the magistrate) "but the strokes shall on no account be administered in any case by the senior subordinate officer," i.e. the gaoler.

Prison Regulation 594 states that "The gaoler in charge of each gaol shall be present at all inflictions of corporal punishment and shall enter in the journal ... the name of the person by whom they were inflicted."

Sec.355, Act 31, 1917, provides that "every punishment of whipping shall be carried out privately in a convict prison or gaol" but it specially excludes from its operation punishments imposed on juveniles under sec.353. The usual practice in inferior courts is to order the cuts on juveniles to be inflicted by the Police Court Orderly for the day. The gaoler has no concern with the whipping of children under 16. If he is ordered to whip a juvenile at the police station he will have to leave his gaol to do so, a most undesirable procedure from the administrative point of view.(1)

This distinction between the two sorts of caning remained in place throughout until abolition, although, as we saw in section 3, the maximum number of strokes for juvenile JCP was reduced over the years while the age limit increased, the definition of "juvenile" for this purpose notably being changed in 1935 from "under 16" to "under 21".

The process of juvenile caning in South Africa was purportedly described in an Australian newspaper article in 1956:

"An eyewitness invited to watch a caning described the scene to me. The offender, a white boy aged 13, had his trousers lowered, was held down by three policemen over a low stool, and the cane was wielded on his bare buttocks by a policeman, who wound himself up in much the same style as a baseball pitcher. The cane made a penetrating, bleeding cut at the first stroke. My witness walked away to vomit with the boy's hysterical screaming following him. He learnt later the youngster spent the next two weeks in bed. I was shown a photograph of a 17-year-old after five strokes and felt sick. He, like most of the others, will wear those stripes for the rest of his life."(2)

This second-hand report from an alleged "eyewitness" sounds highly exaggerated. (A good rule of thumb is always to distrust accounts said to be by an unidentified outsider "invited to watch" a non-public punishment.) The present authors therefore asked a former police officer who had been involved in canings to comment on it:

"Although this report may be true, it illustrates the exception rather than the rule. Most young offenders did their best to take their hidings quietly and certainly without any screaming; muted gasps, and sharp intakes of breath as each cut landed, being as far as they went in giving vent to the pain they were undoubtedly suffering. While the buttocks, particularly of "white" offenders, were thickly and vividly scarred and welted by the cane, the injuries were more like a bloodied nose than the bloodbath referred to in this report.

"By the same token, the effects varied markedly from recipient to recipient, and some sensitive individuals might well have been incapacitated for a while after such a caning, but most had no difficulty about getting on with their lives straight afterwards, even to the extent of riding a bicycle home afterwards -- and these were not "tough" guys, but ordinary juveniles with little experience of receiving such punishments.

The same former police officer's duties included, for a time, the application of sentences of corporal punishment to juvenile offenders. He has provided the following description and observations:

"I spent 18 months in charge of some court holding cells attached to a very busy juvenile court in the early 1950s when caning was almost the punishment of choice for the steady stream of teen and sub-teen juvenile delinquents that passed through the courts.

In that time I administered hundreds of juvenile canings, in doses ranging from 3 to 10 cuts.

I wanted to be sure that the punishment was done properly, and not cruelly.

The offences for which these canings were imposed ranged right across the age spectrum from 9 to 21, and included theft (including shoplifting), rowdyism, swearing in public, almost anything involving damage to property, resisting arrest for some other offence, drug-related offences (very rare in those days except for 'dagga' –- marijuana -- among the blacks) and the more obvious types of dishonesty.

There was no 'ceremony'. When the District Surgeon arrived, all those who were going to get the cane were herded into a big cell. There they all had to remove their pants and underpants and go for a quick medical check-up. After that they lined up. All that was said was the offender's name and how many cuts he was going to get. Each offender, when his name was called, went forward to lie flat on a bench with his shirt pulled up to his ribs and his tail naked for the cane. Only the policeman with the cane, and probably the offender himself, kept track of the number of strokes.

'Light' canes were used on juveniles. These were between 2ft 6in (75 cm) and 3ft (90 cm) long and just under three-eighths of an inch (one cm) thick. They were kept pickled in a solution of salt water and vinegar so they were quite supple and stung like hell. The tips were carefully rounded off because when you hit hard, as we had to, the tip often whipped round and bit into the side of the buttocks, so if it had sharp edges it would have cut the flesh badly. We tried not to do more damage than was absolutely necessary; it was sore enough anyway.

The canes were mostly malacca, but smooth bamboo or rattan was also used; however, malacca was the most durable and, when wet, packed a really nasty sting.

With a few exceptions, there were two forms of caning technique.

For the older boys, usually 16 and over, this involved aiming at an imaginary spot about 6 inches below the surface of the buttocks. It resulted in the cane's remaining in contact, at maximum pressure, with the skin, for a measurable period. It stung like hell, raised very ugly weals and left deep, long-lasting bruises. It resulted in a very painful thrashing and a deeply bruised backside that stayed tender for weeks.

For younger offenders, the stroke was aimed at the skin, landed there and was lifted at once. It stung like the devil, especially on the bare bottom, and left an angry 'tramline' welt, but, unless the offender had a very thin hide, he was as right as rain next day, although his behind would stay striped for about a week. This stroke was used to let them know all about it while it was happening, and as a warning for later, but so as not to really hurt them.

We never tied the offenders down; usually, one constable hung on to his elbows or wrists and another to his ankles. That kept them still and their hands away from their tail; they never thought of 'defending' themselves, or doing anything to irritate us, they just wanted to get it over and done with as soon as possible.

Surprisingly, the younger offenders mostly took their hidings more quietly than the 'big' ones; maybe they were more in practice from being caned at home or in school. It almost seemed to be a point of honour for them not to yell.

Juvenile canings were supposed to be 'in private', but, in practice, a few of the court staff (both male and female), often came along to the cells at about 4 p.m. and the cell staff had no problem about letting them in. It was quite improper but the offenders didn't seem to mind, as it was actually a sort of insurance policy for them -- with outside spectators, they seemed to feel that they would be less likely to be hit so hard.

Some of the women rather enjoyed watching the canings. The victims had to bare their behinds, but took nothing off except what was necessary to do this. Because clothes round knees or ankles were a nuisance, we made them take their lower garments right off. Shirts etc. stayed on.

For some boys the most embarrassing part was when they were lying on the bench waiting to be caned. At that point his shirt was pulled up to the armpits, exposing his backside. So if the boy's shirt had been long enough to cover him up, now he was exposed. A towel was then placed over his lower back to protect his kidneys in case the cane missed the buttocks.

Everything --  taking pants off, the medical check-up and the actual caning --  took place in the same cell, so there was not much walking about, and afterwards, all they had to do was go to where they had left their clothes and put them back on when they were ready.

It quite often happened that, in the course of a juvenile judicial caning, particularly of six 'cuts' or more, blood was drawn here and there, but the strokes never 'cut' the skin, in the sense of leaving long open weals; it was rather where the tip of the cane dug in or, perhaps, if two stripes overlapped. We always did our best to avoid such wounds, but our goal was to inflict on juvenile delinquents a memorable dose of really sharp pain down there without injuring them more than was unavoidable.

In some cells the offenders had to 'buk' (bend over), but in our case we always made them lie flat on a bench, so we could give them a hiding in more or less equal doses from both sides, especially if they were getting 6 or more, so as to avoid bruising one side only, to 'blistering' point or leaving it raw. We never gave 'diagonals', which would have broken the skin at the intersections of the stripes. 'Follow-through' whacks were very rarely inflicted and then only in very bad or 'subsequent offence' cases involving 'late' teens, as they usually peeled strips of skin off the bare tail whenever the thrashing was at all 'serious', as those always were.

Judicial corporal punishment was not unfairly slanted in favour of 'rich' offenders or those with 'good' lawyers. If offenders were well represented, they might get off on a technicality or because of superior cross-examination, but in the 18 months I was involved, my experience was definitely that, if a 'well-heeled' offender was found guilty of something that deserved a hiding, the tendency among the Magistrates was to adopt a 'he should have known better' attitude and to send them down for a really good thrashing, rather than the 'poor little rich boy' approach and let them off lightly.

If a thrashing was 'deserved' because of an offence, the offender got what was coming to him, irrespective of his background.

The juveniles I caned spent a minimum time in jail. The punishment was given quickly (always on the day of the case) and the offender was then sent home. He was not likely to forget his punishment, but he didn't spend months dwelling on it before receiving it -- it was over almost before he had a chance to think about it. He had just enough time to regret what he had done, and maybe to be sorry that he had done it, and it was all over." (3)

In The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs the eponymous author (now a member of the Constitutional Court, the highest judicial organ in South Africa) described life in the police cells in which he was held as a dissident against the apartheid regime in the 1960s. He found he could overhear the sounds of juvenile canings going on in adjacent cells. His understandable hatred of the regime and all its works obviously colours his description:

"The last of the prison vans has roared out of the dispatch yard into the silence of the outside world, and for a moment there is a hush over the police station. Doors in various parts of the building are slammed, footsteps and voices can be heard, congregating in the passage on the other side of the wall of my yard. The harsh scraping sound must be the noise of a bench being moved. A series of names are being called out each followed by a faint ja baas [...] Next a single name is called and a moment of silence follows. There is a lot of confused shouting and guffawing. Then it comes, a smack followed by an instantaneous scream. A terror-stricken boy's voice soars into a strident, swooping yell which tails off into a beseeching, hysterical-like series of yelps. I hear it not only through the wall, but coming up, echoey and distorted, from a drain in my yard like the spirits of the earth. The drain is connected to the passage by a large tube and this tube funnels all loud sounds made in the passage through to the base of my yard. Thus the boy's screaming reaches me from two angles in hideous stereophonic sound. His wild soprano shriek is partly drowned out by great bellows of vigorous male laughter. My fingers clench tightly and I find myself practically running as I frantically try to ward off the ballooning din of pain, supplication, mockery and cruelty that assaults me. Smack! The yell grows into another fierce screech. Smack! The blows a falling quickly now. Smack! Smack! The screaming is fixed in one long continuous spasm of agony, counterpointed by successive waves of broken, raucous laughter. Smack! I cannot block it out and will never get used to it. The world heaves up new cruelty each day and I am chained here as if to be its witness. Smack! Smack! The blows cease and the screaming drops to a piteous blubbering moan. I imagine the bloody and torn backside, the convulsive, trembling hands as the thrashed boy tries to put on his short pants again. Society has tried to teach one more youth that he must respect the person and the rights of others.

"When the Magistrate comes around on his weekly inspection and asks if I have any complaints, he would laugh at me if I told him I had a serious allegation to make; every afternoon three or four hefty adult men get hold of young boys, aged anything from eight to eighteen, and beat them mercilessly with canes. The beating is so severe that when I go out for exercise I see broken pieces of cane scattered on the floor. But you're a lawyer, the Magistrate would tell me, and surely you know that the police are carrying out sentences imposed by the magistrates who in turn speak for the whole of civilised and ordered society. And how can you talk of cruelty, he would continue, when it is the law that orders that these boys be caned. They have broken the law, without which there can be no civilisation, and in any event it is better that they have a quick beating than that they be sent to prison or reformatory.

"[...] Perhaps I should be grateful -- I do not hear the adults being whipped. Their flogging is done elsewhere. On average four of five children get six to eight strokes each a day. About twenty-four boys a week receive a total of up to one hundred and fifty strokes. In a month hundreds of cuts are given and over a year it must run into thousands. Some afternoons the boys take it stoically, grunting their pain not screaming, but usually the strokes are followed by ghastly shrieking and wailing. Much seems to depend on the first victim: if he bears his beating in silence, those that follow remain silent, whereas if he yells they all yell. Frequently the police in charge of the boys burst out laughing during the caning. Whether they are amused at the antics of the terrorised boys, or whether they find the breaking of the cane funny, I will never know. Sometimes they beg desperately to be spared the thrashing. Sometimes they repeat the same ejaculation of pain after each smack – eina eina eina eina eina eina. But usually it is one long wild yell, as though the violence of the assault strips them of all self-control and brings out infantile or animal-like terror responses from them; possibly vocalising their pain provides some relief. Long after the caning has ended the screams continue to vibrate in my mind."(4)

The following is a first-hand description provided by an elderly (Afrikaner but bilingual) correspondent of two juvenile canings he received in the 1940s.

[NOTE BY CF: I will not normally include unpublished and uncorroborated personal anecdotal accounts on this website because one never knows whether to believe them, and there is undoubtedly a lot of fantasy material floating around. I have decided to make an exception here because I think this is an exceptional case. The correspondent in question has written a lot more than what is here, in various fora, and all of it hangs together with a degree of very plausible detail and absolute consistency that ultimately has persuaded me to overcome my initial scepticism.]

"I came from a rural area of what was then the Union of South Africa. I lived on a farm five miles from town.

In the 1940s, and indeed well into the 1980s, corporal punishment was in frequent use both in the home and at the school, as well as being used against juvenile offenders and adults convicted of serious crimes.

As a young boy growing up at the time, I was no stranger to corporal punishment, and I was often caned kaalgat (bare bottom) on the farm, or with pants on at school.

In 1943, at age twelve, I got into trouble with the police. A pal and I were playing and shot out street lamps with a "cattie" (catapult). We were caught by a policeman and put in the cells overnight. It was wartime, and authority did not take kindly to our destroying scarce public property. By the time the magistrate had finished bawling us out, we were both crying. My pal and I were each sentenced to receive four cuts. There were four of us sentenced to this punishment, and we had to wait for it in the cells from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

At last a policeman came to get us. We were then taken to the bathroom, and told to relieve ourselves. After that we were taken to the cell where the canings took place. We were still barefoot, dirty and in tatty clothes and it was summer and that was how we had slipped out the previous night. We were told to take off our trousers and underpants, and put them on the floor next to the wall of the cell. My friend Jimmy refused. The policeman simply told him that if he refused to take his pants off, they would take them off by force, and then leave him to be the last one to be caned, so that he would have to stand there in his bare bum the whole time while everybody else was being caned, and watch them suffering before his turn came. So he took his pants off. Our shirts both happened to be very short, just about hip length, with the result that when our pants came off we were effectively naked from the waist down.

Each of the boys to be caned was examined by a doctor, who checked for hernias, and listened to his heart. After all the boys had been examined and approved, the caning began. They started with the smallest boys, so Jimmy got it first and me next.

The caning was given with you lying flat on a bench. One policeman held your hands, and another your feet, so you couldn't move around and try to avoid getting the cuts. Jimmy's four cuts made him yell and cry, because a hiding always hurt him a lot more than me. When they let him get up, he immediately ran over and pulled his underpants and trousers on. He was always quite a shy kid.

I got my cuts in the same way, but it wasn't too bad and only made me yell the one time when the cane got me right where my bum and my legs joined.

After me there were two big boys to be caned. Both the two big boys had ordinary 'tail' shirts on, which kept their bits and pieces covered except while the doctor was busy with them, until they had to go and lie on the bench, when the back tail was pulled up to make their bums bare for the stick.

This punishment was not that sore: I think that the police officer who administered it took pity on us a bit, and I had had lots worse at school. It was hot and stingy, but not that bad, and my red stripes only lasted a day or two, and there was hardly any bruising.

My second punishment was a different proposition altogether. It was 1948 and I was nearly 17. I drove a car without a licence and couldn't afford a fine, so I begged the magistrate for cuts instead. He obliged, and sentenced me in the following terms:

"You are to be taken to the cells and to receive a moderate whipping of seven strokes with a light cane, to be administered in private by Sgt. ----------"

In fact I could have got ten cuts for this offence.

This was at about 12.15 pm, and I was again obliged to remain locked in the cells while awaiting my punishment.

I sat waiting in my ordinary clothes: grey long trousers, underpants, shirt and tie, sports coat, shoes and socks.

Eventually, I was called for, along with a whole lot of other boys and teenagers who had been similarly sentenced. Some were older, and some younger, than myself. I had no idea what they had been sentenced for.

We were all taken into the "caning cell" together. This wasn't so that we could watch each other "getting it"; it was purely a matter of logistics -- with several boys to thrash and everyone wanting to get it over with, it was logical to get all the brats in a line and to polish them off in quick succession.

The cell was big and bare, with white cement walls, floor and ceiling, and small windows high up.

As we arrived, we were all made to remove our trousers and underpants. Having been thrashed on a previous occasion, I knew the drill, and as I was wearing "stovies" I had already removed my shoes and socks and left them in the holding cell. Our clothes were just dumped on the floor while we waited.

We were then in turn medically examined by the District Surgeon. As was the practice, this involved a check of the pulse, heart and breathing, a cursory 'rupture' check, and a quick look at the bum, before being passed as fit for punishment.

Once we had had our 'medical' we didn't put our clothes on again, so we had to wait around with everything on display, except those who had very long shirt tails.

As well as us boys, the room also had about five policemen, the District Surgeon, and a number of court staff of both sexes, probably three or four females and at least as many males. The majority were quite young, late teens or early twenties. Their presence seemed highly irregular; it was surely not part of their jobs. But it seemed to be a general practice as it had happened on the previous occasion, and we kids were so overawed that we took it for granted ... So we all shut up -- it seemed best.

Everyone then took up position to watch the action as the first punishment commenced. One cop had a list and called out the name of each boy, and then as he came forward and got into position, the number of cuts he was to be given. To receive the punishment, we had to lay flat on a bench with our hands held in front of us and our feet also held, at the other end. A folded towel was then put over our back, just above our bum.

It was about twenty minutes before it was my turn: I was number 6 on the list. The punishment was administered by a police sergeant in uniform, I would say that he was in his twenties or early thirties, he was certainly a hell of a lot bigger than me! He took up position to one side of me, picking up a cane from a considerable selection soaking in a nearby paraffin tin of liquid. From the smell, the liquid was a mixture of water and vinegar. The canes were soaking wet, pretty flexible and 'swishy' [...]

The District Surgeon stayed quite close so that he could watch my backside, his position opposite to that of the Sergeant.

My sentence of seven cuts was announced, and the first stroke was delivered by the Sergeant. I couldn't see this, of course, but I knew from watching the caning of the others that his technique was to bring the cane down with a long, vertical swing straight across my bum.

What I heard, however, was a loud hiss ending with a pretty loud crack as the stick hit my bare tail. The sting took a second or so to start, and then the heat followed on quickly after that.

This caning was hurting like hell. The Sergeant was giving me the worst caning of my life. The strokes were about 10 seconds apart. Most were about the same force but sometimes the sergeant slipped in a real scorcher just for fun. When you are being caned bare bum, you don't really go numb, so the sting and burn just get worse all the time –- two strokes are about twice as sore as one, but three are twice as sore again, so that by the time you've had 5 or 6, your behind is in a LOT of pain.

The strokes were placed all over my backside, from the top of the crack right down to the join with my legs. He was trying not to hit in the same place twice, but it did happen, of course. The feeling was a mixture of sting and burn. The pain of each stroke went through my body, just like electric shocks. I was trying not to yell or cry and to keep still. The worst were the low cuts, down at the bottom of my behind, where the tip of the cane whipped around and cut into the soft part in the crease.

My whole caning lasted something like two minutes. They just let my hands and feet go and I was free to get up as soon as I liked. My tail felt like it was on fire -- the heat was worse than the sting; it felt as if I was sitting on a hotplate.

None of us got any medical attention afterwards. Boys were used to hidings in those days. We all left about the same time. I had no problem walking back to my cell to collect my shoes and socks. I was the last to leave.

Afterwards, I had to ride my bike home, five miles, uphill. I was bloody sore, as there were quite a few open cuts and some bleeding. My clothes were a bit scratchy on my stripes, but this was no real problem.

By the time I got home, the bleeding had stopped. I was able to have supper without anyone, except my brother, who knew all about it, even knowing that I had been thrashed by the cops.

I looked at myself in the mirror. I had five two- to three-inch-long open cuts around the side of my right buttock, and the left buttock and the right one from crack to "crest" had thick, raised welts and fairly massive, purple bruises on them. The weals stood out clearly and you could see each stripe easily.

The next day, both buttocks looked like purple footballs. Although the right one was hardly swollen, or bruised, it had almost pitch-black, scabbing "tram-lines" on it, while the left one, and the "inside" part of the right one, were VERY swollen, a dark, angry purple in colour and had finger-thick, rock-hard blue-black welts right across them.

The bruises lasted about three weeks.

The scars, however, stayed for years. People who saw me naked knew the score. When I had to explain, for instance to doctors, I just told the truth. I wasn't ashamed of it, because the things I'd got them for hadn't been shameful things.

However, about five years later a group of us went skin diving and we spent almost all the time 'starkers'. I peeled all over and my 'new' skin had lost the scars, except for part of a scar which remains, over half a century later, right down in the crease between my right buttock and thigh where I didn't get sunburned.

I have often thought about these punishments. There were elements of compulsion, submission, and sheer raw violence, which fell outside the domestic and school equivalents, but the parameters were set; you knew exactly what you were in for. (3)

The following news item from 1959 shows the extent to which juvenile JCP was an everyday event in Cape Town:

... The matter drew renewed attention this week when the police took steps to assure that the cries of prisoners being beaten in a midtown headquarters would no longer upset women employees in near-by office buildings. Sentences of up to ten cuts with a cane are imposed in a magistrates court four blocks from the city's main thoroughfare. The central police barracks on Caledon Square are right across the street from the court.

On Wednesday, business executives in near-by buildings said the sound of the cane blows and the reaction of the prisoners were 'upsetting' women employees. 'We can clearly hear the swish and smack of the cane and the pleadings and screams of people being beaten', one manager said. 'I don't doubt that these punishments are well deserved, but I feel the place for them should be anywhere but in the centre of a business area.'

Another man said that his conversations with important clients had been interrupted by the 'howling of somebody being thrashed'. But the core of the matter, agreement that caning was proper, was expressed by one of the women employees. 'I sympathise with the police,' she said. 'It cannot be nice to have to deal out those beatings. But I wish we didn't have to listen to it.'

The police announced yesterday that in future canings would be shifted to a basement in the same police station, subject to approval of medical authorities.(5)


(1) 1935 SALJ Vol.52 p.48.

(2) "Boys are striped for life - Doug Easom tells of S. African canings", The News, Adelaide, Australia, 12 January 1956.

(3) Private correspondence with the present authors.

(4) Albie Sachs, The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs, Harvill Press, London, 1966.

(5) Milton Bracker, "Caning at issue in South Africa - But Sentiment is Against Screams of Prisoners, Not the Punishment", New York Times, 26 April 1959.

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