If you can pay, you can buy your own goods

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

In 1994 shortly before our historic first democratic elections, Nelson Mandela suggested that the voting age be reduced from 18 to 14.

He was widely ridiculed for doing so and the matter was quickly forgotten.

Two things this week reminded me of Madiba's proposal.

First, that a 14-year-old boy was due to appear in court on Monday charged with murdering his family with an axe. The boy is alleged to have killed his three-month-old sister, his seven-year-old brother, his mother, and his grandmother on Friday in the Barcelona squatter camp in Etwatwa, near Benoni.

Second, that the Constitutional Court will hear arguments Thursday as to why provisions in the Sexual Offences Act that criminalise children who have consensual sex should be struck down.

And those, in turn, reminded me that our Social Development Minister recently proposed raising the legal alcohol drinking age from 18 to 21.

So, finding myself somewhat confused at this point, I began to jot down what I do know thus far.

  • If you are age 14, you are old enough to be tried for murder but not old enough to be a voter.
  • If you are age 14, you are old enough to have sex with a 14-year-old or a 15-year-old but not a 16-year-old because the 16-year-old is then automatically guilty of rape.
  • If you are age 14, you are not old enough to drink a glass of wine in a restaurant but are old enough to drink wine in a religious context.
  • If you are 14 and kill your grandmother, we cannot tell anyone that your grandmother is dead because they will then know your name and we cannot identify you because you are a minor.
  • If you are 14, you are old enough to have sex and get contraception without your parents' permission but are not old enough to have an HIV test without your parents' permission.

Which brings me to my point: how old is old enough?

Age is not really a definitive indication of competence or moral fibre. I have seen some people who became exceptionally good parents after having kids in their teens.

I have also seen some people in their 40s and 50s who fill me with dread at the thought that they might inflict their value proposition upon the genetic future of the human race.

Historically, if you were a girl and hit puberty, you were married off at the earliest opportunity. This was very much the norm across cultures. Most authorities concur, for example, that the mother of Jesus Christ was no older than 13 at the time of her giving birth.

As recently as the early 20th century, my father's sisters were married off in their early teens and most of my father's brothers married child brides. (I expect that's very much the norm for parents of most 50-something South Africans.)

In short, there's historic recognition of the fact that all one needs to bring a child into this world is to have reached puberty.

If you did that, you were considered to be an adult with all the rights and responsibilities that went with that recognition. Age did not come into the picture at all.

What's changed?

Well, we became prosperous and our life span increased dramatically. And that lifestyle change meant that it was no longer necessary for children to start earning their keep as soon as they were able to.

As a species, we removed from our children the burden of responsibility to allow them to get educated, which in turn increased the level of prosperity, which meant they took longer to become independent.

With the absence of financial independence came the inability to enter into legal contracts.

Think about it: if you can pay your way, you can buy your own goods and property. If you are dependent on your parents or guardians, you have no right to transact with their money.

So, from the Middle Ages where age 7 was considered to be the age of accountability (when one could be tried) (and executed), today we have most of the world agreeing that one is adult when one turns 18.

There are some notable exceptions: in Scotland, the age is 16. In Japan and Indonesia, it's 20.

I have no strong views on the matter of age. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, there are two types of girls in this world: your daughter, and everyone else's daughters. I do, however, feel strongly about accountability for one's actions irrespective of age.

If you father a child as a child, you should be accountable for the support of that child until that child is an adult.

That means as soon as you start working, part of your salary should automatically be allocated towards child support. For the next 18 years…

I suspect a lot of teenage boys will be more circumspect about sowing their seed indiscriminately if they see real financial consequences ahead.