South African children under siege

Children at an early childhood development group learn and play in a safe and secure environment.Picture: Dumisani Sibeko

Philip Volschenk, Siphesihle Sibusiso Mbangula, Keleabetse Seleka, Rene Roman, Stacha Arends, Nomfundo Tsotetsi, Keketso Mahlakwana, Minentle Lekhatha, Iyapha Yamile, Courtney Pieters, Mpilo Xaba in Jabulani, Poppie van der Merwe, Sadia Sukhraj, Miguel Louw, Matthew Smith, Baby Daniel and many other children made headlines in 2018 due to the violence they suffered at the hands of caregivers, teachers and strangers which eventually led to their tragic, untimely deaths.

The death of a single child, is one too many, and many children continue to die prematurely due to persistent violence against them. South Africa is marked by exceedingly high levels of violence, abuse and neglect of children. Save the Children South Africa, in research conducted in 2015, reported that the scale of violence against children cost the country an estimated R238.58-billion.

The most prevalent forms of violence against children are physical abuse, homicide, corporal punishment, sexual abuse, rape, emotional abuse, neglect, bullying, gang violence and human trafficking. The 2016 Optimus Study on Child Abuse, Violence and Neglect in South Africa, showed that 35 per cent of children in the country have been sexually abused and the same proportion have experienced physical violence; 26 per cent have suffered emotional abuse; and 15 per cent, neglect. Overall, 42 per cent have experienced some form of violence. The child homicide rate in South Africa is 5.5 per 100,000 – this is more than double the global average.

The Study also confirms the excessively high rates of violence and abuse of children across multiple settings such as the home, school and within our communities. It is disheartening that adults entrusted to care for children are the ones that actually abuse them in most of these cases. This further creates a situation of hopelessness to children who are already vulnerable.

If the people of South Africa truly want to secure the future of the country and ensure sustainable development, they need to invest more on its children, and the first step of such an investment will be to take steps to protect children now, as these children determine the future. To do this we need to review structures that are in place to ensure the development of children. These structures are the home, government and the community.

There are many cases where children have and are being abused by their caregivers, this clearly indicates that the home which is supposed to provide protection and succor is failing miserably. Programs must be put in place to remove children from dysfunctional homes and place them in foster care, with the best interest of the child in mind. What needs urgent attention, is to make foster care a viable option as our foster care system is currently riddled with a lot of irregularities and is not adequately monitored, therefore instead of ending the violence could rather perpetuate it.

Parents today, are inundated with financial and other related struggles, which leads to depression and in turn affects their capacity to provide care. It is thus important that we – as a society – invest in family support and empowerment programs to ensure that parents are able to physically and mentally care for their children. As an old African adage says: “the comfort of the tree is what assures the comfort of the bird.” In essence if the parents are comfortable it will in turn affect the home environment the children grow up in.

During his tenure, President Nelson Mandela confirmed the needs of children as paramount and pledged the government’s commitment to prioritise children’s rights at the highest level. As a result he established the children’s desk in the Presidency (later known as the Office on Child Rights or ORC) to co-ordinate the National Programme of Action for Children, liaise with stakeholders and provide advice to the presidency on the situation of children in South Africa. In a similar vein, we need renewed vigour establishing government structure such as the ORC to ensure that children’s rights are prioritised.

Shifting the children’s portfolio to the widely mandated Department of Social Development has been a regressive step for children’s rights, as agreed by child rights activists as well as the South African Human Rights Commission. It is understood that this is a regression of the children’s portfolio that creates a potential vacuum for government, as it lacks a specific focal point and mandate on children’s rights.

In ensuring children’s rights are realised, it is not only important that children are given the opportunity to speak about issues that affect them, but that they are also heard. The children’s parliament has created a great platform for children to speak, however their voices are not making an impact as there is no committee at the National Assembly mandated to monitor the implementation of suggestions made by the children’s parliament. To beat the cycle of violence and children rights’ violations, children must not only be seen to be heard, they must truly be heard.

The justice system must be sensitised when handling matters that deal with children. All violations must be investigated and brought to court. The court needs to be more child friendly, less intimidating and flexible enough to understand that rules that apply to adult victims and witnesses can’t apply to child victims and witnesses. 

It takes a village to raise a child, as such we must all be responsible in ensuring that the children around us are safe. The onus is on all of us to report any abuse against a child.

The unfortunate truth is that South African society has become so accustomed to the daily violence against children, that we have grown complacent and passive to it. Our children matter, their right to life matters, their right to dignity matters, their right to a safe environment matters and all other rights apply and matter to them. If then children are the future of South Africa, we need to wake up as a society, take action and ensure that they are indeed our hope for the future.


 Angie Makwetla and Omolara Akintoye-Asuni are Commissioners at the South African Human Rights Commission.