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South Africa

Notes from the House: When the innocents die: Child murders under the spotlight

Children’s dolls lie on a bed at a pre-school in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township, February 17, 2010. South Africa has the highest rate of rape in the world, including child and baby rape, with one person estimated to be raped every 26 seconds, according to aid groups and local organizations. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly

‘There were 10 in the bed and the little one said roll over...so we all rolled over, now there are nine in the bed.’ Parliament is an unlikely place to hear nursery rhymes, but this old ditty was quoted in a submission to a committee meeting about the scourge of child murders in SA.

First published by Notes from the House

Edith Kriel, director of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Jelly Beanz, also reminded the Western Cape Social Development Department committee of the fate of Humpty Dumpty, who fell off a wall. No one could put him back together again.

The point being made so powerfully and poignantly by Kriel was that by the time children are referred to her organisation, “it’s already too late,” she told the committee. “The damage has been done.” Prevention programmes are offered to the children, “but children are powerless to make child abuse stop”.

Jelly Beanz is an NGO to which children who have been abused are referred, and Kriel stressed the urgent need to address the underlying “pre-child murder” issues. The title of her presentation was: “Child murder does not happen in a vacuum”.

The point made repeatedly throughout the committee meeting was that lack of coordination between health, police and social services “compromised the outcome of management of child abuse deaths”.

A member of the public told the committee that an appeal had been made to the government by 17 community organisations to hold a commission of inquiry into South Africa’s appalling rate of violence against children. After a long wait, the reply came back. “No, a commission of inquiry would be too expensive,” she and her fellow petitioners were told.

They decided to hold their own community commission of inquiry. She referred to testimonies that the commission heard from the 2,000 children who gave evidence.

The children were very clear in terms of what they want and what they don’t want.

The children used to go to the park,” she said. “But then lots of adults started coming to the park to gym [exercise]. With all the adults there the children became too now scared to go there. It used to be their safe place.”

What kind of world becomes unsafe when adults are around? How can children feel safer when left to their own devices? To the reasonable among us that is not normal. But the NGOs who made their submissions to the committee made it clear: in certain areas in South Africa, particularly in the Western Cape, that is now “the new normal”.

A 16-year-old girl gave her name quietly and so hurriedly that it was difficult to catch. “I am sorry to say this, but our parents sometimes don’t do the job they are supposed to do looking after us. Our teachers. They don’t listen to us…or they don’t care.”

She was among a group of children from Atlantis who had been brought to Parliament by the long-standing children’s rights NGO Molo Songololo. But the committee chairperson interrupted her, “due to time constraints.” He explained that members of Parliament and the provincial government had other commitments, other meetings to attend.

He then gave Patrick Solomon, who for more than 20 years has been the driving force behind Molo Songololo, a stern dressing-down for bringing children to address Parliament when they should be school. Solomon is a familiar figure in Cape Town activist circles. He has spent his adult life providing children at risk with care and attention.

The chairperson and committee members repeatedly told him that these children should be in school. “They have the right to schooling,” the committee chairperson said without any trace of irony. It must have appeared to those children who had come all the way from Atlantis on the Cape West Coast that it wasn’t only their teachers who didn’t listen to them.

The chairperson suggested holding another hearing – after school hours. He assured them that the committee would even come in on a Saturday if need be.

The minister [of social development] will want to hear what you have to say,” he said. He added encouragingly that next time there would be more children, and people from health and social welfare and education. The police would also be invited to the hearing, he said, at which point it became uncomfortably obvious that no one representing the South African Police Service (SAPS) had attended the presentations.

This came towards the end of the hearing, after two hours of presentations on child murder statistics, all of which have been released before – in Parliament in 2018.

What appeared to make the committee members sit up and listen was the 16-year-old who continued with what she had to say.

When I walk home from school with my friend…we don’t walk alone…we see the gangs. And we must walk right through the middle of them, where they stand.” She said to avoid them would mean a very long walk. A bus was out of the question.

My mother, she is a single mother, doesn’t have money for buses,” she explained. If children are kept in detention they run the risk of walking home alone, the committee heard, probably the toughest part of their punishment.

The statistics are worth repeating. In September 2018, Parliament released the following:

Committee members engaged in debate about apparent discrepancies in the child murder rates cited, until it was explained that they covered different time periods.

Amid the presentations, someone stated the obvious: “We need to afford children the same level of protection afforded to adults.”

Everyone agreed on what was needed and the deployment of defence force troops in the affected areas was not high up on the list. There were better ideas: teach parents to discipline their children without violence; add parenting programmes at schools, ante-natal classes and well-baby clinics and make sure fathers attend; introduce compulsory life skills programmes from Grade R upwards to teach children non-violent ways of dealing with anger, frustration and bullying; identify and support mothers with unwanted pregnancies and tell them of their options – babies are abandoned in maternity wards and the newborns that are found represent a small proportion of those whose bodies are successfully hidden.

It was reported that 75% of children who died from child abuse were under the age of five and mothers account for the largest group of murderers of these children. Professor Shanaaz Mathews, director of the Children’s Institute, confirmed that fatal child abuse is at its highest in the first year of life.

As children get older the risk of being killed by a mother decreases,” Mathews said. Thereafter, men take over as the major perpetrators. The research showed a massive increase in the murders of boys over the age of 12 as gang warfare becomes their daily reality.

The committee agreed on the urgent need to appoint a children’s commissioner as provided for in the Children’s Act, No 2 of 2019.

Most of the appeals and proposals were simply common sense: Remove children from high-risk homes and/or families. Teachers must serve as appropriate role models. There is a need for “responsive policing”; offenders should be refused bail or, if granted, this must be allowed only under stringent conditions.

A genuine proposal among the presentations was the following: when offenders have been apprehended and convicted they should be imprisoned.

It was unanimously agreed that child murder occurs where there is poverty, violence in the home, and the vicious cycle of learned responses by children who grow up into dangerous adults.

Dr Robert Macdonald, head of Western Cape Department of Social Development, spoke about the “helluva lot that is being done on the ground”. He praised the NGOs throughout the sector, but they remain under-funded. Even though the department does provide some support, there are simply not enough resources available to provide solutions.

A provincial plan of action was approved by the Western Cape Cabinet on 21 November 2018. This was premised on the findings of a Child Death Review (CDR) Panel, under the supervision of the Provincial Department of Health’s Forensic Pathology Unit and based at the University of Cape Town.

One take-away fact worth holding on to: The National Prosecuting Authority has prioritised child murders since the start of the CDR process. Prosecutorial decisions are now taken sooner and police investigations guided by the NPA are prioritised earlier than before. Finalisation of child death cases has been speeded up since the NPA became involved, the committee was told. DM

Thanks to the Parliamentary Monitoring Group for making this information available.

Moira Levy is a former staff member of Parliament’s communications service. She is now founding publisher/editor of Notes from the House

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