Given that it is June, issues surrounding the youth of our country come to the fore on the back of the unforgettable 1976 Soweto Uprising on the 16 June and the national holiday marking its significance. We start to see the ubiquitous photo of a lifeless Hector Peterson being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubu with his terrified and traumatised sister running alongside which spread like wildfire around the world and became a flashpoint regarding the perpetuation of apartheid policies. It would still take another decade to see the end of apartheid and the long-suffering Nelson Mandela ascension to president of a democratic South Africa. He firmly believed in the rights of children, dedicating his time and resources to the plight of the youth, firmly believing children to be assets upon which the future, and its leaders would be built. During his tenure as president, Mandela gave half his salary to the poor, specifically to children. “I have never cared very much for personal prizes. A person does not become a freedom fighter in the hope of winning awards,” he writes in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. In addition, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, he gave part of his $1.2-million (R11.7-million) prize money to help disadvantaged children.
Given that it is the centenary year of the birth of Nelson Mandela and indeed Youth Month, it is important to emphasise that there has been a catastrophic failure to protect the interests of the youth of this country by and large. Despite many government programmes and initiatives regarding youth and the problems they face, we are seeing an alarming trend of violence against children, inadequate health care for the young and abysmal schooling which are all exacerbated by widespread poverty. The inherited apartheid system backlog coupled with the lack of real political will has become a recipe for disaster playing out in front of the nation’s eyes, with apathy numbing the skin to the increased temperature of the proverbial pot of hot water we as South Africans find ourselves in.
According to statistics issued by the Mail and Guardian last year, approximately 53 children under the age of five die in South Africa every day — and three-quarters of them do not live to see their first birthday. Children are literally dying on their mothers’ backs after being denied the right to proper healthcare timeously. Government clinics and hospitals around hopelessly short-staffed and undersupplied with basic medicine and equipment. Critical skills shortages have led to key posts such as oncologists remaining vacant. The Health Ombudsman has recently warned that government healthcare is on the verge of a complete collapse without serious and speedy intervention.
The Institute for Race Relations (IRR) reported last year that the years 2015-2016 saw 900 children murdered in South Africa, many of those sexual in nature but not excluding gang violence and abandonment of children by mothers. Reports of violence against children use headlines such as ‘national disaster’ and ‘violence against children a downward spiral’. The picture is bleak with the Children’s Institute of the University of Cape Town reporting that up to 34% of the country’s children are victims of sexual violence and physical abuse before they reach the age of 18. The child murder rate in South Africa more than double the global average, with many crimes committed against children never even reported. In addition to this, emotional abuse, rejection, human trafficking and kidnap of children are also sad realties in South Africa.
The right to a basic, decent education for many South African children is also denied to many. Few countries in the world spend as much on education as South Africa - public spending on education is 6.4% of GDP; the average share in EU countries is 4.8%. However, accountability of teachers and their unions cripple these financial inputs. In 2018, mud hut schooling and pit latrine toilets, in which our children often drown, are still in existence and in some areas, the norm. In fact, Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, indicated in 2017 that some schools in rural parts of the Eastern Cape have no ablution facilities!
Many average South Africans are confronted with these statistics through news reports and we have all but become apathetic and numb to the realities on the ground for so many young children. Many historical reasons such as apartheid special design, inequality, poverty and injustice have led us to this point. This coupled with an overburdened national healthcare system, a crippled and weakening education system and social ills such and poverty and violence that lead to the prevalence and escalation of heinous crimes against children is a sure-fire way to ensure the erosion of social capital that the youth represent. What can therefore be done to alleviate and eventually eradicate some of the tribulations that threaten the future of the children of South Africa? Corolin Gomulia, head of strategy, communications and advocacy at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation says, ‘There are plenty of research reports, policies and strategies that allow us to understand the complexity and intersectional nature of the problem. They also provide recommendations on where to start and what to do. Civil society in its many manifestations, government institutions such as the department of social development, department of health and SAPS, and the private sector all need to not only allocate the required resources, but become active agents for change. They need to be bold, disruptive, courageous and creative -- and activate networks, systems and individuals to protect children, starting today.’ Therefore, this youth day, remember that as much as the youth struggled during the days of apartheid, is as much as they suffer now and no classic photograph can whitewash the clear and present danger to the youth of this country.
Lauren Marx is a Senior Researcher at Freedom Park