Keeping kids safe is everyone's responsibility

WE HAVE almost reached the end of Child Protection Week but for most children in South Africa, it has not made any difference to their lives. Of course, the protection of children and others who are vulnerable in our society should not be the focus for only a week, or even a month. It should be something that we focus on every day of the year.

The protection of children is also something that should not be the preserve of government or law-enforcement agencies. It is something for which all of us, especially parents, should take responsibility.

The dangers to our children are not new. They have been around forever. They were there when I was young, more than 50 years ago.

When I visit townships on the Cape Flats and look at the hundreds of unsupervised young children playing and walking around, I often reflect that I used to be one of them. I used to play unsupervised. I used to wander all over Hanover Park without my parents having a clue where I had spent my day.

Every year, we host a concert in town as part of the One City, Many Cultures Cape Town Festival. We bus in people from several Cape Flats communities to experience the concert for free. This year, for the first time, I noticed that most of the people who come on the buses are unsupervised children. Clearly, their parents see a bus trip to town as a way of keeping their children occupied for the day. At the end of the day, when the buses return home, I often wonder if any of the children have been left behind.

It is easy to blame parents for being negligent when children suffer harm in the townships. Surely, they should be aware of where their children are, one often hears people say, people who have not walked in the shoes of a township single mother who has to work to feed her family, or of a couple who both have to work because the wages of one will not be enough to care for their children.

In most cases, parents are not able to afford day care, so schools become a place where you deposit your children for safekeeping and, after school, you hope that they stay off the streets and will be safe. You trust any adult to look after your children, even if your gut tells you that you shouldn’t.

Most parents want the same thing for their children and would never want any harm to come to them. But we do not live in a perfect society, so some children will always be in more danger than others, especially in poor areas such as those on the Cape Flats.

Both my parents had to work, so my siblings and I were left to our own devices most of the time. Sometimes my mother would take me (the youngest of five children) with her to work, especially when she worked as a domestic worker, but when she worked in a more formal environment, like a clothing factory, she was not able to take me with her. 

If my mother saw or knew some of the people with who I used to hang out as a child of less than 10 years old, she would be shocked.

My sisters, who are two and four years older than me, were given the responsibility of looking after me while my parents were at work, but it is an unreasonable responsibility to give to young girls.

In township homes, young girls have to grow up quickly to take responsibility to look after their younger siblings. The same kind of pressure is not normally placed on boys.

I’m glad that the President has given so much attention to Elsies River over the past few weeks, visiting the area twice after the brutal killing of three-year-old Courtney Pieters, whose lifeless body was found in a shallow grave in nearby Epping, less than two weeks after she disappeared from her home. Mortimer Saunders, 40, has been arrested and charged with raping and murdering the young girl. He lived in a room in the family’s small home.

There are many other communities on the Cape Flats where crime is as much of a problem as in Elsies River and where the residents are looking at the President’s actions with interest.

The crime problems besetting our townships will not disappear with a R10 000 donation and the promise of a house to a bereaved family, no matter how good the intentions. The problems are multifaceted and complicated.

I would like to give the President the benefit of the doubt and say that he is genuinely concerned about what has happened in Elsies River and probably also in other parts of the Cape Flats. What he needs to do now is to engage with community leaders and other interested parties from throughout the Cape Flats and talk to them what can be done to eradicate, and at the very least reduce, the violence that is paralysing many of these communities.

Crime on the Cape Flats will only be eradicated if everyone works together – the police, communities, civil society organisations, churches, business people and others. We owe it to our children, and the generations to come, to make sure our townships are no longer places of fear.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 3 June 2017)