South Africa: Visiting the sins of the father on the children – a bizarre sports case!

By Prof Dr Steve Cornelius, University of Pretoria, South Africa

Arguably the biggest challenge for sport today is not so much the misconduct of athletes on and off the field, but rather the behaviour of spectators at sports events.

Instances of violence, racism, abuse of officials and other misconduct, are becoming more prevalent among spectators. This is unfortunately also the one aspect of sport over which clubs and federations have the least amount of control. This makes spectator behaviour at sports events a major concern for the organisers of any sports event.

When those spectators also happen to be parents at school sports, the matter becomes even more worrisome. Such parents not only detract from the enjoyment which the children and other parents should have from sports, but they also detract from the pedagogical value of having sports at schools.

This is the issue that arose in the South African case of AB v Pridwin Preparatory School [2018] ZASCA 150 (1 November 2018).

Pridwin is one of the oldest and most exclusive private schools in Johannesburg. It caters for boys up to grade seven. Two parents, who are only referred to as “AB”, the father, and “CB”, the mother, to protect the identity of the children, enrolled their two boys at Pridwin. In doing so, they entered into a separate contract with Pridwin for each of the boys. Apart from setting out the various obligations of the parties, the contracts also provided that either party could terminate the contract by giving one term’s notice to the other.

The problems seem to have begun when the elder son, who was nine years old at the time, began to play tennis at the school. The father, AB, accosted the young intern, who was responsible for the tennis, and accused her of incompetence, demoralising the children and damaging their enthusiasm for the game.

Next in the firing line was the cricket coach, when the younger son, who was eight years old at the time, began to play cricket. AB became obsessed with match statistics and would routinely compare his own statistics with the school’s official match statistics, often questioning the accuracy of the latter and sending a barrage of emails to complain about the cricket coach and team selection.

Matters took a turn for the worse when, batting during a match against a rival school, the boy was given out leg before wicket. AB shouted abuse at the umpire. When the players left the field during the break, he accosted the umpire and threatened to kill him. Because of this incident, AB was called in to meet with the headmaster. AB remained defiant and reiterated the threats to the umpire. The headmaster warned AB that, if he did not behave, the school may have to ban him and his two boys from attending sports events.

Matters deteriorated even further during a cricket match in which the elder son played. When the boy was given out, caught behind, AB shouted abuse at the umpire, then turned his abuse to the coach and finally made directed remarks at the other children. Other parents, who were upset by this behaviour, then lodged complaints with the headmaster, who then recommended to the school’s governing board that formal disciplinary proceedings should be instituted against AB. AB and the mother, CB, then met with the headmaster and an agreement was reached in which AB undertook to refrain from any interference in the school’s sports. As a result of this, it was decided not to proceed with formal disciplinary proceedings.

This agreement turned out to be empty promises, as the football coach would soon find out. AB arrived at the boys’ football practice, with his own football coach in tow, and provided unsolicited advice because he was of the opinion that the school’s football coach was incompetent. The headmaster requested AB and his football coach to leave.

When the school governing board failed to resolve another matter, in which AB and CB accused the school’s head of sport, of defamation, the school decided to terminate the contract with the parents.

In spite of the fact that the school could by now, because of various material breaches of the contracts with AB and CB, immediately rescind the contracts, the school rather elected to invoke the termination clause and give AB and CB a full term’s notice. This was done in the interests of the children and to give AB and CB time to find an alternative school for them.

AB and CB challenged this before the Johannesburg High Court on the grounds that they were not afforded a hearing before the decision was taken to terminate the contracts and that the decision violated the boys’ rights to education as guaranteed in section 29 of the Constitution.

The High Court dismissed the application, primarily because Pridwin is a private school. Section 29 does not recognise a right to a private school. In addition, Pridwin exercised its rights in terms of the contracts with AB and CB and, therefore, did not have to afford them a hearing.

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Appeal confirmed this judgment.

The matter was then taken on further appeal to the Constitutional Court, where the matter was recently heard. This judgment is pending. By now it has become more of academic interest, as the elder son has already moved on to high school and the younger son has been placed in another school.

In delivering the majority judgment in the Supreme Court of Appeal, Judge Cachalia bemoaned the sad reality that “the facts described here … catalogue a sorry tale of misconduct on” the part of AB and, to a lesser extent, CB. One can only lament the example which parents set for their children when they misbehave in such ways.

The difficulty which cases such as these present, is how to deal with delinquent parents in a way that does not cause severe prejudice to the children involved.

It must already be extremely humiliating and stressful for children to witness the bad behaviour of their parents. And while one would certainly like to name and shame such parents, it is even more important that the identity of the children should be protected from glaring media scrutiny.

At first glance, it may seem harsh to have terminated the contracts and effectively expelled the boys from the school. It may seem as if the sins of the father are visited on the children. But perhaps moving the children to another school is much more kind than it seems. The conduct of the father has already tarnished the children’s relationships with other children, other parents, teachers and staff at the school. Removing them from an environment, where they will always be viewed as the children whose father misbehaves, may actually prove to be in the best interests of the children.

One would also hope that it would be a wake-up call for the father to realise that his delinquent behaviour will not be tolerated!

Prof Dr Steve Cornelius may be contacted by e-mail at ‘steve.cornelius@up.ac.za’