November 18, 2019

Child murders under the spotlight

Remember the song you sang as a kid: ‘there were ten 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 be reminded of nursery rhymes, but this was a committee meeting about the scourge of child murders in South Africa, and this old ditty had chilling implications when quoted in a submission to the Western Cape Social Development department.

The same presenter, Edith Kriel, Director of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Jelly Beanz, also reminded the politicians of the fate of Humpty Dumpty, who fell off a wall. No one could put him back together again.

The point being so powerfully and poignantly made by Kriel was that by the time children are referred to the care of her organisation, “it’s already too late”, she told the committee. “The damage has been done.”

Lack of co-ordination between health, police and social services 'compromised the outcome of management of child abuse deaths'.

Jelly Beanz is an NGO to whom children who have been abused are referred, and the point Kriel was making was the need to acknowledge all the many underlying issues “pre-child murder”. The title of her presentation was spot on: “Child murder does not happen in a vacuum”.

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

It is common knowledge that one in 10 child murders are associated with rape, mainly perpetrated by a known male. The committee was told: “Children don’t fear so much being assaulted and raped… but being raped and then violently killed is what they fear”!

We are all responsible for looking after our children and that will only happen if we work together, a member of the public stood up to say. Social welfare, police, courts and health and education departments have to cooperate to “save our children,” she said.

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

Fortunately some of the groups and NGOs that work in this field are determined and unstoppable. They have to be, because the statistics of abuse, rape, infanticide and murder of South African youth under the age of 18 continues to increase alarmingly.

“We decided to hold our own community commission of inquiry,” she told the committee. Speaking defiantly, a bit breathlessly, perhaps unused to addressing the kind of high-level gathering you mostly find in the parliamentary committee rooms, she referred to a couple of the testimonies that the commission heard from the 2,000 children who gave evidence, who came to tell their stories of neglect, violence and abuse mostly from adults known to them, including their own parents.

“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 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 sixteen-year-old girl, who gave her name quietly and so hurriedly that it was difficult to catch, addressed the gathering of adults: “I am sorry to say this, but often adults don’t know how to look after us.”

She may have been nervous, but she stood up and spoke anyway: “Our teachers. They don’t listen to us... Or they don’t care.”

A number of children from Atlantis had been brought to parliament by the long-standing children’s rights NGO, Molo Songololo. They had prepared accounts of what had been done to them and their friends.

The committee chairperson interrupted her, “due to time constraints.” He explained that members of parliament and 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 Cape Town to address parliament when they should be in school. Solomon is a familiar figure in Cape Town activist circles who has spent his adult life providing children at risk with care and attention.

The chairperson and committee members repeatedly told Solomos during the hearing that these children should be in school right now. “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.

However, the chairperson rescued what could have been another dreadful blow to these children, whose streets, schools, parks and homes were clearly unsafe territory. He suggested holding another hearing – after school hours! He assured them that the committee would even come in on a Saturday if need be, and next time more people will be invited, he said, sounding conciliatory.

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

Speaking close to the end of the hearing, these children and adult members of the public who had come to demand action, had sat through two hours of mind numbingly bland presentations on child murder statistics, all of which have been released before – in parliament last year. Despite the detailed graphs and brightly coloured maps and power point presentations displayed on several TV monitors around the room, it was difficult to follow the proceeding. Did the people in attendance appear to be numb from boredom, or because they had heard it all so often before?

What made the committee members sit up and listen was the sixteen-year-old, who insisted on having her say. Maybe these they had not heard before. “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.

Anyway, the statistics are worth repeating. In September last year Parliament released the following:

  • 985 children have been murdered in South Africa in the past five years.
  • 695 of those were boys and 294 were girls.
  • The majority (279) of the children were killed in the Western Cape (over 25% of all murdered children), followed by KwaZulu-Natal (221) and the Eastern Cape (180).
  • Children were the victims in 41% of the 124,526 rapes reported in the three-year period most recently reviewed.
  • Only 1 in 9 children report a crime against them.
  • During their lifetime, one third of children experience some form of sexual abuse during childhood (boys slightly more than girls).
  • 12% of children experience neglect.
  • 18% of children have experienced physical abuse.
  • 26% of children have experienced emotional abuse.

There was a presentation that shows what happens to the brain of a child who has been subjected to violence. Adrenalin and cortisol levels are increased, flight or fight systems are continually activated and the baseline functioning of the developing brain is neurobiologically affected. All sorts of negative behavioural outcomes can be expected.

A 2015 report by Save the Children was cited. It measured the economic burden of this scourge of violence against children in South Africa. The estimated economic value of disability-adjusted life years lost due to violence against children (fatal and non-fatal) in 2015 totalled R202 billion, or 3.3% of South Africa’s GDP that year. Did that have the effect of making people sit up and listen? Can our struggling economy afford any more unbudgeted for and destructive financial misconduct?

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

Amid the presentations, someone stated the obvious: “We need to afford children the same level of protection afforded to adults.” It turned out to be Kriel again from Jelly Beanz. “Saying ‘children are our future’ is trite when seen in the light of the failure to invest in children.”

Everyone was in agreement 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: Make all forms of violence against children illegal – including the use of physical and humiliating punishment; 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 – it was pointed out that babies are abandoned in maternity wards and the discarded newborns that are found and rescued represent a small proportion of those whose bodies are successfully hidden.

It was reported that 75% of children who died through fatal child abuse were under the age of 5 and mothers account for the largest group of murderers of this age cohort. Prof 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.” Thereafter men take over as the major perpetrators. The research showed a massive increase in the murders of boys over the age of 12 when 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 Act, No 2 of 2019 and most of the appeals and proposals were simply commonsense. 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. Another proposal among the presentations read: when offenders have been apprehended and convicted they should be imprisoned.

There was clearly consensus on all of these suggestions ‑ but what would there be to argue about? However, also unanimously agreed upon is that there are simply not enough resources available to provide these, or any other, solutions. The actual causes of child murder are endemic where there is massive poverty and unemployment, violence in the home, and the vicious cycle of learned responses by children who grow up into dangerous adults.

NGOs throughout the sector remain under-funded, even though the department of social services does provide some support, and a Western Cape provincial Plan of Action has been approved by the Western Cape Cabinet, on 21 November 2018, but not activated. It was based on the 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.

The committee heard that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) has prioritised child murders since the start of the CDR process. Prosecutorial decisions were now taken sooner, police investigations guided by the NPA are prioritised and finalisation of child death cases has been speeded up, the committee was told.

Moira Levy

An earlier version of this article was first published by the Daily Maverick.

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

Additional Info

  • Author: Moira Levy
Last modified on Saturday, 17 August 2019 14:44

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