By Alice Lander
BBC News, Durban
Holding hands is fine for teenagers - but closer contact might be illegal
South Africa's new Sexual Offences Act includes a clause which could allow youngsters to be criminally charged for kissing or fondling.
Twelve to 15-year-olds fall under the new legislation, which covers acts that it describes as "consensual sexual violation".
Rights groups say the controversial clause, signed into law last month, should be seen to protect children, despite claims it is unworkable in a country plagued by far greater problems: not least of them, the rape of children.
Among the acts defined as "sexual violation" in the bill include "direct or indirect contact... between the mouth of one person... and the mouth of another person".
Where minors are concerned, such acts are illegal even if performed with consent.
"I think it's stupid because we should be responsible enough to hold girls' hands without raping them or abusing them sexually," said Luke Singleton, 13.
His grandfather, Fred Montague, agreed, saying more time should be spent on dealing with serious offences like rape, hijacking and fraud.
"If Luke were to meet his cousin here and kiss her happy birthday, should that be a crime?" he asked.
"In this country we are trying to get 16 year olds to vote yet they can't kiss and hold hands. It's ridiculous."
Christopher, 15, said children would kiss and hold hands anyway.
"It's really stupid because the law can't stop kids from doing things like smoking so they're not going to stop kids from seeing their girlfriends," he added.
Superintendent Kenneth Verwey of the Durban Metro Police, meanwhile, questioned who would enforce the legislation.
"Can you really see the cops charging in on a party and breaking up two kids huddling in a corner having a kiss?" he asked.
He added that he saw the law as a knee-jerk reaction designed to try to stop all intimacy in the light of the high HIV transmission rates amongst the young.
But the amended act also includes a new definition of rape which allows men and boys to lay rape charges for the first time.
And Joan van Niekerk, national co-ordinator of the anti-abuse charity Childline, explained how the law could be used to help children, especially those growing up without parental guidance.
She defended the reasoning behind the clause but questioned its efficacy.
"Imagine you have two consenting children who testify against each other - both are going to say, 'He never touched me.'"
"It's important to protect young people and encourage them to delay sexual contact for as long as possible, but there are far more constructive ways of doing it than by criminalising children," she said.
While non-governmental organisations have hailed some aspects of the new act, such as the new, wider definitions of rape, they say it still fails children and adolescents in court where they are still expected to testify in the presence of the accused.
Rights groups say more attention should be focused on these more worrying issues, rather than on a spurious and badly constructed clause.
If you would like to join Africa Have Your Say to debate this topic LIVE on air on Thursday 10 January at 1600 GMT, please include a telephone number. It will not be published. You can also send an SMS text message to +44 77 86 20 20 08.
Here are a selection of comments sent in so far:
It is always a touchy issue when legislation is passed on what is seemingly a moral issue. I think this law is relevant. Its enforcement will be difficult, but at least adults with moral values will not be subjected to seeing 12-year-olds kissing in public without being able to dial 911.
Oli Kapopo, London, UK
They're passing so many laws in this country that no ordinary person knows for sure what's illegal these days. There's not enough competent enforcement to keep the crime down, let alone these minor violations. So ... who cares? This law is a joke.
Wahedeen, Port Elizabeth, South Africa
The emphasis of the authorities should be on prayers and moral counselling of teens. Also, keep the youths busy through education as this will keep their minds off such negative issues. It is true that an idle mind is the devil's workshop.
Ashipa James Olashupo, Abuja, Nigeria
Yet again the South African government seems to miss the mark - with Mbeki's flip-flopping on Aids policy and not tackling the awful issue of child rape, this new law, aside from being unenforceable, takes time and energy away from actually fixing the nation's social and health problems.
Tom Collins, Bristol, UK
Trying to prevent rise in teenage pregnancy is a good initiative, but the act should be rephrased. The government should think of better way because this is not the 'era of Moses'. For any civilised society to move forward, socialization cannot be swept under the carpets. Please don't make these children 'freed captives'.
Samuel, Yola, Nigeria
I think making such innocent conceptual contact between kids will makes matters worse, the more people are exposed to such behaviour the more normal it becomes hence making people less sensitive to the behaviour, banning will only alienate the behaviour hence making the community very sensitive and less tolerant and this could have effects on tourism and young western tourists will find it odd.
Benson M Tembo II, Manchester, U.K
Difficult to comment because of the prevailing (and often irrational) fear of paedophilia... but we were all children once, and most of us engaged in consensual sexual activity far greater than kissing, sometimes at relatively young ages. Yet most of us seemed to grow up into well adjusted adults capable of having normal relationships and holding down jobs. The moral (and dangerously ignorant) majority seem to have forgotten their own childhoods. I remember my first kiss - I was eight, she was seven. Nothing awful happened and God did not strike me down.
Mr H, London
I think the government of South Africa are really lacking of what to do or to say. They should stop things like marijuana, cocaine, rape. There is a lot of sexual violence and our leaders cannot say anything like that. What has kissing got to do with all the named above?
Fassie, Limbe, Cameroon