Attempts to stop the child-related pornography tsunami stalled indefinitely

Attempts to stop the child-related pornography tsunami stalled indefinitely

More than half of the nine- to 17-year-olds in South Africa have seen sexual images on a phone or online device in the past year – 8% took naked photos or videos of themselves and two-thirds of those children shared them. Some experts report up to 15 cases of sextortion a day involving children. With earliest exposure to pornography happening at preschool, why is legislation designed to protect children gathering dust in the Department of Justice’s filing cabinets?

Listen to this article

It has been two and a half years since the South African Law Reform Commission published its report recommending amendments to key pieces of legislation related to children and pornography. 

The report contains its proposals to protect children from access to pornography, to manage sexting and sextortion, to criminalise all child sexual abuse material (previously known as child pornography) along with all aspects of live displays of child sexual abuse material, to clarify that sexual grooming can occur online as well as offline, and to make the policing of grooming easier. 

The report also recommends that all crimes listed in the Sexual Offences Act include criminal acts committed through the internet, webcams, mobile phones, and technology yet to be developed, and extends the obligation to report sexual abuse to online abuse. 

At the time of the report’s finalisation, South Africa was already struggling to manage a tidal wave of child exposure to pornography, of sexting and sextortion, online grooming and child sexual abuse material. But according to Dr Joan van Niekerk, who is part of the commission and sees daily the calamitous impact of delays on children, despite the extreme urgency to implement these recommendations, the Department of Justice is yet to introduce any of them to Parliament. 

And given the long lead times between legislation’s introduction and its promulgation and application, the delay is likely to extend well into the term of the seventh Parliament. 

That is, if it is introduced. At present, even that seems unlikely.

Negative online experiences

The 2022 Disrupting Harm survey reports that most children (95.3%) in South Africa have access to the internet via a mobile device, and 58% of children aged between nine and 17 access the internet every day. There was no use difference based on gender or whether the children were from urban or rural areas. The overwhelming majority (97%) use smartphones to access the internet.  

The report found that not only had 53% of those children seen sexual images online in the year before the study, but also that more than two-thirds (67%) of child participants who had seen sexual images were exposed to them on an online device.

Pornography is highly addictive, and that accidental exposure often leads to purposeful searching and can become compulsive in a short time.

South African children were found to engage in risky online behaviour and have negative online experiences, which increases their online vulnerability to exploitation and abuse. Children who participated in the survey reported that during the year preceding the survey, 40.1% of them had experienced unwanted exposure to sexual experiences and materials, while 20.4% experienced unwanted online sexual advances. Between 7% and 9% of children had been subjected to online child sexual abuse and exploitation such as having their sexual images shared without permission, being blackmailed or coerced to engage in sexual activity.

Marita Rademeyer, a clinical psychologist from Jelly Beanz, which is dedicated to helping children affected by online and in-person sexual abuse, sees these children daily. “Tannie Marita”, as she is affectionately known, works with children from primary school upwards. But her youngest client with a dependency on watching pornography was a five-year-old who had first seen pornography on her dad’s phone. 

A 2021/22 digital well-being survey targeting pupils in grades 4 to 11, conducted by Be in Touch Digital Marketing and peer reviewed by the Bureau of Market Research’s (BMR) Youth Research Unit, found that 60% of the children surveyed had first viewed pornography by age 10, 56% had first seen it at home and 34% had first seen it at a friend.  

Even more telling are stats about intentionality. Most of the children included in a 2016 BMR survey reported that they had first viewed pornography accidentally, 49.5% while they were surfing the internet for entertainment and 39% while researching content for schools. 

Rademeyer confirms how easily it can happen through a misspelt word, or Google misunderstanding the request. For example, a child may search for something innocent such as “Californian newt” (a kind of reptile). Google then corrects it to Californian nude and suddenly the child is inundated with inappropriate images. She says it’s also common for children to be exposed to pornography when their parents stream movies for them while they work, and a child accidentally clicks on a pop-up, which are plentiful.

One of the Jelly Beanz clients, Josh*, now an adult, says he was first exposed to pornography at the age of seven through a boy of 12. He describes watching pornography as “like eating sushi”. He says that, “at first you don’t like it, and then you crave it”. Even at the age of seven he remembers that it “produced big feelings”.

The impact of pornography viewing on children is disturbing. Citing important studies on children’s exposure to pornography, Rademeyer explains that pornography is highly addictive, and that accidental exposure often leads to purposeful searching and can become compulsive in a short time. She says that studies show that early introduction to pornography (ages seven to 11) results in significantly more depression and less satisfaction in adulthood than those exposed later or not at all.  

Pornography also has a negative impact on children’s thinking. Those who used pornography showed increased impulsiveness, poor decision-making, memory problems and decreased learning ability.  

According to Rademeyer, pornography becomes the main source of sex education for many children, and those who view it have more sexual partners, are less likely to use contraception, are more likely to have used alcohol or other substances in their sexual encounters, are more likely to contract sexually transmitted infections or become pregnant, and are more likely to sexually abuse siblings.

Josh confesses that he thought that girls “wanted sex all of the time”. He couldn’t understand why the boys he was watching seemed to “get it right”, but he didn’t. Another former Jelly Beanz client, Simon*, who began watching pornography at the age of 10, said that in his community, viewing pornography was a daily occurrence and that the boys spoke openly about it and about pleasuring themselves while they watched.  

98% of frontline workers interviewed for the study identified access and exposure to pornography as the greatest factor making children vulnerable to online sexual abuse and exploitation. 

He said that for his peers, kidnapping girls was considered okay and that boys would take what they wanted if girls constantly said “no”. As someone who watched gay pornography, however, he was terrified of anyone finding out. He said pornography also gave his peers negative messages about homosexuality and that it exacerbated the bullying of gay children.

Kate Farina from Be in Touch, which is dedicated to helping families navigate their kids’ online world, says that in a country with such extreme levels of gender-based violence, pornography worryingly normalises violence: “Boys are growing up believing that good sex is violent and painful, while girls are growing up believing they need to be compliant and submissive.” 

Farina says that at a private boy’s high school following a recent viewing of the Fight the New Drug documentary Brain, Heart, World, 77% of the boys surveyed agreed that pornography normalises sexual violence.

Moreover, 98% of frontline workers interviewed for the Disrupting Harm study identified access and exposure to pornography as the greatest factor making children vulnerable to online sexual abuse and exploitation.  

Jelly Beanz explained that pornography viewing among children is very difficult to police because parents are usually the last to know when their child has a problem. This is because children actively hide their tracks when using pornography and minimise their involvement in it. They also stress that caregivers cannot talk a child out of using pornography, and that punishment doesn’t change the behaviour, it sends it further underground.

It makes prevention of exposure essential. 

Legislative reform

It’s one of the chief motivators for the South African Law Reform Commission’s study on pornography and children, and its recommendations to amend legislation to protect children from exposure to pornography which is criminalised in Section 19 of the Sexual Offences Act. 

The report explains that the Films and Publications Act already compels internet service providers to register with the Film and Publications Board and to take steps to prevent their services from hosting or distributing child pornography, and to protect children from any crime committed against them (which should include exposure to pornography). Further, these injunctions to shield children from access to pornography are repeated in the South African Cellular Operators Association Code of Good Practice (SA Cellular Code) as well as the Wireless Application Service Providers’ Association Code of Conduct (Waspa Code).

But current legislation has clearly had little impact.

Drawing from international best practice, the commission therefore recommends that through amendments to the Sexual Offences Act, the government develops legislation that comprehensively criminalises the enticement of children to view or to make child sexual abuse material, along with anyone making pornography accessible to children.

The first part is applicable to all persons advertising, providing access to, distributing or enticing a child to view pornography. The amendment would criminalise all acts of exposing children to pornography and unsuitable content. 

The second part is applicable to anyone, including the manufacturer or distributor of any technology or device or an electronic communications service provider. The amendment would require a default block to be placed on all devices to prevent children being exposed to pornography. All devices (new and second-hand) would be issued with the block or must be returned to a default setting when they are sold or given to a minor. The block will prevent children accessing inappropriate content, but includes an opt-out possibility on proof that the buyer or user is 18 and older. 

It would then be a criminal offence to allow a child to engage with any device, mobile phone or technology with internet access, without ensuring that the default block is activated to prevent children being exposed to pornography or child sexual abuse material. It would also be illegal to uninstall the default block.

The recommendation further criminalises the use of misleading techniques on the internet, specifically the embedding of words or digital images into the source code of a website, an advertisement or domain name, to deceive a child into viewing or being exposed to child sexual abuse material or pornography. 

Moreover, it suggests that the Films and Publications Act be amended to provide for a clean-feed regime for material deemed unsuitable for children.

Limiting exposure

The commission is aware that legislative changes are not sufficient to protect children. It also recognised that Disrupting Harm findings confirmed the scarcity of online education for children. The study revealed that less than half (only 41.4%) of the child participants had ever received information on online safety.

The commission therefore recommended that the government “work with internet access and service providers to roll out a national awareness-raising campaign, underpinned by further research, to better inform parents, professionals and the public about what pornography is; young people’s access and exposure to pornography; and responsible safe use of the internet”.

These recommendations were workshopped with key role players in the internet, mobile phone, online safety and child protection space, and the commission recognised some practical concerns about implementation raised by these interested parties.  

In response, it proposed a three-pronged strategy for limiting children’s exposure to pornography.  

First, using legislation to include a block at the point of the end user. It acknowledged that this may not be fail-safe because, for example, many devices given to children are second-hand and enforcing the reinstatement of the block may be challenging. For this reason, its second strategy would be to persuade the major platforms to put codes in place so that mobile phones cannot link to their platforms without a pornography block when the phone is set up (again, noting that the block can be disabled if you’re an adult). Third, it recommends legislatively placing obligations on electronic communications service providers through the Independent Communication Authority of South Africa, and regulations.

The commission also presented a proposed legislative solution to children being criminally charged for sexting.  

Sexting is defined as the sending, receiving or forwarding sexually explicit messages, images or videos via an electronic device. The Disrupting Harm survey found that 84% of children felt that sending sexual content online was very risky and 68% strongly agreed that a person should not take these photos or videos or allow anyone else to do so.  

The risks of creating and sharing what children euphemistically call ‘nudes’ are significant… Of these risks, extortion, or sextortion as it is commonly known, is particularly rife. 

However, in practice, 8% of children surveyed confessed to having taken nude images or videos of themselves, and 5% said that they had allowed someone else to do so.

In addition, 8% of children surveyed said they had shared naked pictures or videos of themselves online in the past year. When asked why they did it, most children said they were in love, or flirting and having fun. Others said that they trusted the person or that they were worried that they would lose the person if they didn’t share.  

A worrying 21% said they did not think there was anything wrong with sharing.  

Equally concerning are the children who shared because they were pressured by friends, threatened or offered money or gifts in exchange for the images. 

Eight percent of children surveyed confessed to having pressured someone else to share naked videos or images. 

Globally, the Internet Watch Foundation reported that most self-generated child sexual abuse images are of 11- to 13-year-olds, but it noted a 360% increase in self-generated sexual imagery of seven- to 10-year-olds from 2020 to 2022.  

Seventy-eight percent of the 255,571 webpages it flagged during 2022 contained self-generated images.

The Sexual Offences Act and the Films and Publications Act criminalises the creation, production, procuring and possession of “child pornography” which is defined as “private sexual photographs and films” or “intimate images”.  

While there seems to be legal uncertainty about whether children may distribute consensual intimate images and private sexual photographs and films, and about children self-generating content, the Law Reform Commission document states that “legally, the primary consequence for a child who voluntarily generates sexual material of him or herself is that distributing this material or making or possessing material of another child”, even with that child’s consent, “may lead to a charge being brought against the child for any number of child pornography-related offences, including possessing or exposing another child to child pornography”. 

This could “result in a conviction for a serious criminal offence, although the child would be dealt with within the remit of the Child Justice Act 75 of 2008”.

In addition, the risks of creating and sharing what children euphemistically call “nudes” are significant. Chief among those identified by the commission are the “unintended circulation” of images, images or videos being used for “bullying, revenge or extortion”, the adverse impact on children’s “well-being, reputation and future prospects”, and complications for law enforcement.

Of these risks, extortion, or sextortion as it is commonly known, is particularly rife.  

Tackling ‘sextortion’

According to Farina, sextortion of children, classified as cyber extortion under the South African cyber laws, occurs when predators blackmail children into sending them sexual or nude pictures and videos. Targeting children as young as 10 and usually focused on those in their early teens, often boys, criminals use Snapchat, Tiktok, Instagram and Discord to befriend and then manipulate and coerce children into sending them naked photos or videos.  

Farina says that the criminal (it could be an organised syndicate or a common criminal) puts together an account on a platform being used by the child. Typically posing as a teen boy or girl, a bored housewife, modelling or sports agent, they follow the child and then start a chat on direct message (DM), before asking for the child’s WhatsApp details. If the child gives them their phone number, the criminal sends them an explicit image or video before requesting one in return.  

Once the child has sent a nude image or video, they are told that unless they pay the criminal or produce more content (the criminal will be specific about positions and props), the images will be released to their friends and family.  

Many children do not tell their parents out of embarrassment, shame or fear of disappointing them.  

The report recommended that all offences relating to child sexual abuse material and children’s exposure to pornography should be criminalised in the Sexual Offences Act and that wording around grooming be changed to include online grooming. 

Nevertheless, in mid-2023 Emma Sadleir from the Digital Law Company reported getting up to 15 calls in a day from parents whose children had been targeted and sought help. These are often the fortunate ones. Others, crippled by shame, don’t turn to a trusted adult and tragically, convinced these is no other recourse, commit suicide.

According to Farina, if sextortion occurs, the child’s family must screenshot the conversations on the social media platforms and on WhatsApp, because this counts as evidence to the police. Then, before blocking the predator, they should send this message: “I have spoken to my parents. They are reporting it to the police for investigation because you are in possession of child pornography.” 

She counsels families that when a nude is shared from a child to an adult, it is classified as child pornography, so they need to use the Crimestop number 0860 010 111 to report the matter to the police and ask for a detective from the Serial and Electronic Crime Investigation unit who investigates online child pornography-related matters.

Options to manage sextortion after it occurs are limited, so awareness and prevention are key. Farina’s top tip to stop sextortion is for children to set their account to private, and for parents to help vet followers. But she and other child protection experts emphasise that the best way to stop sextortion completely is to deter children from sharing naked images. 

Decriminalise ‘consensual sharing’

While recognising children’s right to self-expression, the Law Reform Commission viewed preventing what it terms “self-generated child sexual abuse material” as an important goal. It further sought to take into account Unicef’s position that “consensual self-generated child pornography by certain children should be decriminalised for personal use between consenting children”; the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child’s advisory to decriminalise “consensual sharing” of images between children; as well as expert opinion warning of the “serious but unintended consequences of these images falling into the wrong hands when distributed”. 

The commission therefore recommended decriminalising children showing a naked picture of themself to another child within the confines of a “consensual lawful relationship” provided it is their own image.

Children will, however, not be permitted to electronically send images of themselves to anyone, or forward images of any other child.  

It further recommended that once the child turns 18, there would be “no defence for the continued possession of the material”, so all naked self-images must be deleted. 

It also recommended education to help children understand the impact of taking and sharing naked pictures and videos. 

The commission noted children’s vulnerability and the need to protect them from being used for, or exploited through, child pornography (now termed child sexual abuse material). It cited statistics produced by the Internet Watch Foundation which, along with its partners, blocked at least 8.8 million attempts by UK internet users to access videos and images of children suffering sexual abuse in one month alone.  

This was confirmed by Europol which noted a significant increase in the demand for child sexual abuse material since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The WeProtect Global Alliance’s 2023 Global Threat Assessment Report revealed an 87% increase in reported child sexual abuse material cases since 2019, with more than 32 million reports globally.

The commission stressed that “internationally the need to define and criminalise this behaviour, using accurate terminology, has become increasingly pressing”.  

The report recommended that all offences relating to child sexual abuse material and children’s exposure to pornography should be criminalised in the Sexual Offences Act and that wording around grooming be changed to include online grooming. 

Along with self-generated child sexual abuse material, it highlighted content created for aesthetic or creative purposes and images created by parents, particularly in electronic format. It stressed that those creating the content should be “alerted to and educated about the consequence of and possibility of abuse of the images as a result of distributing such material”.  

Given the rise of sexual abuse and exploitation online, another crucial development is the proposed legal requirement for electronic communications service providers and financial institutions to report if their facilities are used in an offence involving child sexual abuse material, as is criminalising all aspects of the live sexual abuse displays including live streaming, attendance of the displays, viewing them, or procurement of children to participate.

The commission’s report contains months of planning, researching, drafting, workshopping and consulting with the country’s leading experts on online and in-person child sexual abuse.  

But Van Niekerk says that, incomprehensibly, there’s no plan of action to implement any of its legislative or non-legislative recommendations. 

While it gathers dust, the lives of many South African children will be defined, destroyed and even ended by exposure to pornography and child sexual abuse material, including self-generated content. As the country ends yet another 16 Days of Activism, it’s clear that even when we have the solutions for ending violence perpetrated against children, there’s no urgency to implement them. DM

* Names have been changed to protect identities.

First published in the Daily Maverick: 12.12:2023

Abandonment

Adoption

Child Abuse

Child and Youth Care Centres

Child Homicide

Child Protection Legislation & Child Rights

Covid and Children

Early Childhood Development

Foster Care

Health and Hunger

Missing and Trafficked Children

Undocumented Children

Baby saver ban: geared for child ‘protection’ or spiralling out of control by increasing infant deaths?

Baby saver ban: geared for child ‘protection’ or spiralling out of control by increasing infant deaths?

Gauteng Social Development’s October ban of baby savers as a place to relinquish babies followed 10 years of advocacy by civil society to prevent unsafe abandonment. Government terms it ‘child protection’, but given the number of children dying or left disabled when babies are abandoned in rubbish dumps, disgusting pit latrines or the open veld, who is this protecting? Instead, baby savers should be considered an essential service.

Listen to this article

In October 2023, the Gauteng Department of Social Development (DSD) issued a directive to Child and Youth Care Centres (CYCCs), as well as private temporary safe care homes, declaring all baby savers in the province illegal, ordering them to close with immediate effect, and threatening legal action for those organisations that do not comply.  

Baby savers are mechanical boxes attached to CYCCs, places of safety or crisis pregnancy centres where a mother who is experiencing a crisis pregnancy, who cannot or will not raise the child and isn’t able to place that child into the child protection system, can safely relinquish the child as an alternative to unsafe abandonment. Based on the ancient practice of foundling wheels, they are designed to provide a last resort safe haven for vulnerable infants.  

Dr Yolande van der Hyde, a senior pathologist at the Observatory Forensic Pathology Institute, recreated an autopsy she had just performed on a dead abandoned baby. She said that many abandoned children were not born dead, but took a breath before they died.

South Africa has the distinction of having the first modern baby saver in the world. Situated at the Door of Hope, it’s been operational since 1999.  Based in Gauteng, the baby saver, which has rescued 270 infants over the last 24 years, is one of those ordered to close.

No response

At the time of publishing, the DSD had failed to respond to questions posed to it about its motivation for issuing the directive, the extent and impact of abandonment and DSD’s strategy for preventing it. However, its position has been well articulated, both in the directive and interviews given by Yvonne Deonarin, Director Children Protection Services: Gauteng DSD on radiotelevision and news media since news of the directive broke in mid-October. 

In a nutshell, the department’s position is that safe relinquishment through baby savers:

  • Is a form of abandonment, which is a criminal offence in the Children’s Act.
  • Encourages abandonment.
  • Is not in the best interests of a child.
  • Denies the child’s right to a name, family, social, cultural and religious identity.
  • “Silences the voice” of the child’s biological father.
  • Creates a caseload of “abandoned children”.
  • Is linked to illegal adoption and trafficking.

It further argues that baby savers are unnecessary because babies can be relinquished at the DSD’s offices, at clinics, hospitals and police stations, and that it has no knowledge of the organisations running baby savers.

They are important points, but to date, no one has been able to debate them publicly. Nor has the department veered off script to respond to any of the counter-arguments raised by child protection experts from Baby Savers South Africa (BSSA), the Teddy Bear Clinic, and Women & Men Against Child Abuse. The issues are therefore worth interrogating, particularly because what is missing from the department’s argument is as significant as what is included.  

Notably absent is an appreciation of the desperation of abandoning parents, and recognition of the extent and impact of abandonment. 

The department has never publicly acknowledged that more abandoned babies die than survive, and that those who survive are often left physically scarred or with trauma-related psychological challenges. In Deonarin’s recent interviews she also downplayed the numbers of babies surviving abandonment. Stating that the Gauteng DSD only had records of 13 babies abandoned in the province between April and September, she said that the department was not aware of the “thousands of babies being abandoned annually”. 

Deonarin’s comment insinuates that the numbers are either overstated, or that the abandoned children are being received by baby savers but not placed into the child protection system, but instead trafficked through illegal adoption for financial gain.  

However, the department knows the origins of the statistic. It’s derived from Dr Dee Blackie’s 2013 master’s thesis on abandonment. Blackie used figures provided by child protection organisations such as child welfare to calculate that 3,500 babies survived abandonment in 2010. 

In the absence of any other formal research on the topic, including by the DSD, Blackie’s statistic has been cited ever since. 

Nor is it likely to be inaccurate. In March 2022, in response to a question posed by the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Social Development about how many babies had been abandoned in the years since Blackie’s research, national DSD sought to answer the question by conducting informal research across CPOs in each province, rather than referring to Part A of the child protection register, which should include an accurate tally of the number of babies surviving abandonment in the period.

A baby saver, also referred to as a baby box or baby safe, is a structure built into a wall where mothers can leave infants as a safe alternative to baby abandonment. (Photo: Whitney Rosenberg)

Babies that survived abandonment

Numbers provided were incomplete (there was no data from the Northwest Province, and limited information from others such as KwaZulu-Natal). But the combined total of 10,500 babies that survived abandonment over the period is substantial. Moreover, the Minister of Social Development told Parliament that 1,024 babies had been abandoned from April 2019 to March 2021 alone.

There’s no minimising the problem. Deonarin herself admitted in a November 2022 TV interview that “the prevalence of child abandonment is on the increase” and that those abandonments included babies “put into packets or dropped off in a nearby field”.

It’s also been flagged by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. In 2022, after the committee received South Africa’s five-yearly report from government, and shadow reports from civil society, it specifically highlighted abandonment and its prevalence on its list of concerns needing more investigation.  

In 2023 to date, there were 86 stories written about abandoned babies. Two thirds (57) were found dead, in rubbish bins, pit toilets, in buckets, on train tracks, in plastic bags, the veld, on the street, in an oven, in the mouths of animals, and in one devastating headline, strangled and being eaten by a dog.

But while the number of children who survive abandonment every year is significant, until government recognises how fatal unsafe abandonment can be, it will always understate abandonment figures.  

One of the unanswered questions posed to Deonarin for this article was “how many abandoned babies die annually?” Her silence wasn’t unexpected. The number of abandoned babies that die is not formally tracked by the SAPS or through forensic pathology labs.  

As a result, these children are completely invisible.  

Completely invisible

Child protection activist Luke Lamprecht however says that when he was researching abandonment, one Johannesburg mortuary recorded 20 dead abandoned babies every month for every six found alive. Lamprecht’s figure, amounting to an intake in one mortuary of 240 babies per year dying through unsafe abandonment, infanticide or neonaticide, was confirmed by Dr Jena Stuart, Chief Specialist Forensic Pathologist at Gauteng Department of Health’s Forensic Pathology Services. She says that the problem is “spiralling out of control” and placing the health sector in crisis.

A 2009 child homicide study completed for the Medical Research Council included 454 children under the age of five who died of unnatural causes.  Of these children, 233 (53%) died in the first six days of life, prompting the researchers to conclude that in South Africa, children under five were most likely to die of unnatural causes in the first six days of life and that the country has some of the highest rates of neonaticide (murder of children within the first 28 days of life: 19.6 per 100,000 live births) and infanticide (murder of babies under one: 28.4 per every 100,000 live births) in the world. In the study, 85% of the neonates died because they were abandoned in the open veld, rubbish dumps and dustbins, toilets, rivers and dams or were buried in shallow graves.

A recent Carte Blanche feature on dead abandoned babies included an interview with bone specialist Dr Roxanne Thornton, who establishes cause of death in the often decomposed bodies of abandoned babies. She identified illegal abortions, concealment of birth and infanticide as common causes of death for abandoned babies. Tragically, the babies she examines can be as old as nine months. But even then, their deaths are seldom investigated. 

In the feature, Dr Yolande van der Hyde, a senior pathologist at the Observatory Forensic Pathology Institute, recreated an autopsy she had just performed on a dead abandoned baby. She said that many abandoned children were not born dead, but took a breath before they died.    

But government has removed the word “abandoned” from its crime records and pathology reports. These babies are now all classified as stillborn even when there is evidence that the child was born alive and then died, or where there was blunt or sharp force trauma. 

One abandoned baby survives, two die

Following their reclassification, an investigative reporter analysing the number of “stillborns” in pathology reports in Gauteng confirmed Lamprecht’s findings that in the province, for every abandoned baby that survives, two die.  

Nor is the prevalence of death specific to Gauteng. Media stories from across the country show that in 2023 to date, there were 86 stories written about abandoned babies. Two thirds (57) were found dead, in rubbish binspit toilets, in buckets, on train tracksin plastic bags, the veld, on the street, in an oven, in the mouths of animals, and in one devastating headline, strangled and being eaten by a dog.  

These stats and stories show the deadly impact of unsafe abandonment.  But the thousands that survive seldom escape unscathed either. Instead, they suffer debilitating physical and psychological injuries. It’s hardly surprising, many of the 29 children whose abandonment and survival was documented in the media in 2023 were found in drains, in municipal rubbish bins, in pit latrines and in plastic bags, including a baby rescued in Gauteng’s Sedibeng municipality during the 16 days of activism for no violence against women and children, after being sealed in a plastic bag and thrown into a river. 

CYCCs and Places of Safety report that many abandoned babies have physical or psychological disabilities. These include brain injuries due to oxygen deprivation, cerebral palsy, autism, ADHD, cognitive delays, limbs and other extremities missing due to rat bites, damage to lungs due to exposure after a child was abandoned outside in winter or at night, from near drowning or breathing in faecal matter when abandoned in pit latrines, tremors due to being abandoned at the side of a highway or children plagued with night terrors because they were left in dark drains for extended periods of time, or even buried alive.

Not surprisingly, the department doesn’t acknowledge these cases. If it recognised the risk of children’s death or disability following unsafe abandonment and did not act to prevent it, it would be acting negligently at best, and potentially, even criminally. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Closure of baby savers in Gauteng will lead to more unsafe abandonments and deaths — experts

Nonetheless, the DSD is on the same page as child protection activists about many things related to unsafe abandonment. Everyone agrees that first prize is for children to be raised in their nuclear or extended families, that it’s not optimal for children to be robbed of their cultural identities, heritage or relationship with their biological fathers. They even agree that abandonment is rife and that if societal factors such as poverty, unemployment, sexual violence, teen pregnancies and the breakdown of extended family exist, so will abandonment. 

Where they disagree is about if unsafe abandonment should be prevented at all costs, whether government’s efforts to stop crisis pregnancies and assist women to place their children into the child protection system are working, and if women can relinquish their babies at all DSD offices, clinics, hospitals and police stations. Activists further query if baby savers rob fathers of rights because women who abandon typically report that they’ve been sexually assaulted or abandoned by the biological father. Most importantly, civil society disagrees that abandonment is an “easy option” or that abandoning parents would abandon if they had alternatives.    

Underestimating desperation is as dangerous as ignoring the extent and impact of abandonment.

Pervasive factors driving abandonment

Frustratingly, despite being aware of the factors driving abandonment – Deonarin listed many in her November 2022 interview – the department seems curiously lacking in empathy about the despair they can cause.   

Moreover, government doesn’t understand that no one would deliberately risk arrest, prison, hurting or killing their child, or sacrificing any future relationship with them if they felt they had options.  

Recognising that people abandon as a last resort when they cannot or will not raise a child, and when placing the child into the child protection system is either not possible or government fails to assist them, refutes the argument that safe relinquishment is an enabler allowing parents to avoid parental responsibilities. Equally, if abandonment is a certainty, it’s inevitable that the child will be separated from the extended family, from culture and from its origins. 

People who use savers see abandonment as their only choice, making assertions that baby savers promote abandonment spurious. They’re instead a last resort to stop death.  

Armed with that knowledge, government should recognise that banning baby savers to stop abandonment is akin to government banning lifeguards to stop people drowning.

Even when it recognises desperation, the DSD still deems savers unnecessary, arguing that parents can relinquish at DSD offices, hospitals, clinics and police stations instead. Worryingly though, some women report being “chased away” when they have tried. 

Deonarin calls these “isolated incidents”.  However, the Gauteng DSD was unable to provide standard operating procedures for safe relinquishment at these institutions, and when BSSA asked for them, it was allegedly told that the department was in the process of writing them. 

‘Go home and parent’

In the interim, incidents of women seeking help being told to “go home and parent” abound. As recently as November, there were two separate incidents in Gauteng on the same day.  

In the East Rand of Johannesburg, a desperate mother tried to relinquish her baby at a police station because she had not received help from the department. When the SAPS took the baby to the local DSD offices to get it placed into the child protection system, the department ordered the police to arrest the mother because, despite the DSD’s directive, the police were told that she wasn’t allowed to relinquish her child to them. 

On the same day, in the West Rand of Johannesburg, a care worker from a place of safety escorted a mother to her local DSD offices because she wanted to place her four-month-old baby into care. The social workers apparently told her “she didn’t look poor” and sent her away. Even after a senior DSD manager intervened, the mother was told she couldn’t put her baby into the place of safety she had chosen. She left the offices with the baby. The child has since been placed into care, but without intervention, she might have abandoned her baby.

The DSD’s concerns about the potential illegality of baby savers based on the Children’s Act and the risk of trafficking through baby savers are however valid. It’s why advocacy groups have been working for years to amend the Children’s Act to allow for safe relinquishment. In March 2022, Dr Whitney Rosenberg from BSSA, whose PhD is focused on safe relinquishment, presented to the Social Development Parliamentary Portfolio Committee and explained children’s constitutional right to life and the importance of acting in their best interests. She showed how abandonment statistics necessitate a solution to end unsafe abandonment, and the impact on children of government’s failure to act.  

She then presented potential amendments to the wording of the Children’s Act to be incorporated into the Children’s Amendment Bill (CAB). These would legalise safe relinquishment through baby savers while ensuring that unsafe abandonment remains a criminal offence.  

But the amendments were not made in 2022. The committee’s priority was instead to pass the bill in time to meet the November 2022 deadline imposed by the North Gauteng High Court. The order compelled the DSD to provide a comprehensive legal solution to the foster care crisis, thus preventing the Minister of Social Development from being deemed to have acted unconstitutionally. The committee therefore decided to only pass the 12 foster-care related clauses, rejecting the remaining 126 clauses of the bill and effectively removing the option for new provisions in the Act to legalise baby savers.  

Despite this, the department still missed its deadline, and the order had to be extended for another 12 months.    

The committees’ plan was to include the remaining 126 CAB clauses in a committee bill to ensure that extensive work done on them through national and provincial public consultations wasn’t in vain. But calamitously, it discovered in May 2023 that it had been given inaccurate advice by the parliamentary law advisor who told parliamentarians that if the committee rejected the remaining clauses in the bill, they could still work on them as a committee bill.  

Advocate Charmaine van der Merwe, the Senior Parliamentary Legal Advisor in the Legislative Drafting Unit, clarified that the committee should have divided the bill into two, and then passed the clauses related to foster care. This would have allowed it to deliberate on the other clauses thereafter. 

Instead, when the committee rejected the 126 clauses, they were taken “off parliament’s radar”.   

While the number of children who survive abandonment every year is significant, until government recognises how fatal unsafe abandonment can be, it will always understate abandonment figures. (Photo: City Press / Media 24 / Gallo)

Upshot: restart baby saver legislation

The upshot is that work on the remaining clauses and suggested provisions related to baby savers must be restarted from scratch. Moreover, if the committee revives the process now but doesn’t have time to introduce the bill in the sixth Parliament, it cannot be carried over until the seventh Parliament. The result is that the bill, along with proposed new safe relinquishment clauses, has been shelved until a new committee is formed after the 2024 elections.  

The state law advisor was so appalled by the advice given that she felt duty-bound to report her colleague, an action opposed by the ANC members of the committee.  

Given that the DSD was privy to these discussions and aware of the plans to amend the act (and that its inability to fix foster care led to the delay effecting the changes), it seems disingenuous for the Gauteng department to act now to close baby savers, knowing legislative changes are pending.

Equally disingenuous is its continued assertion that it’s unfamiliar with the organisations running baby savers. BSSA met with a senior director from the Gauteng DSD on 4 October and explained in detail the vision for baby savers, its member organisations, the CPOs working with each saver to ensure that children placed in savers are immediately put into the child protection system, what processes they use when a baby comes through the saver, as well as the plan, also presented to parliament, for BSSA to become a regulatory body for savers. 

Acknowledging the risk of trafficking through unregulated savers, BSSA’s proposal is to register all savers who work with accredited CPOs and follow the processes dictated by the Children’s Act. This would ensure that every child placed in a saver is put into the child protection system. Equally, any saver not following the procedures would be flagged and suspended, pending compliance, or closed. 

At the meeting’s end, the DSD and BSSA agreed to pursue ways of working together. But, on the same day, the DSD issued the directive to ban baby savers and make their activities illegal. 

Since most baby savers are run by places of safety or CYCCs, if they defy the directive, they risk legal action, loss of funding and having their accreditation removed. But if they close, unsafe abandonment, which will continue unabated, will result in even more babies dying or being maimed.  If savers are driven underground, the risk of trafficking, minimal when savers are regulated, could also become real.  

Banning savers to prevent trafficking may ironically result in trafficking increasing.

Going upstream to stop abandonment at its source: addressing gender-based violence and prevention of crisis pregnancies should minimise abandonment numbers. As should options counselling and, when they are finally drafted, the implementation of safe relinquishment standard operating procedures for clinics, hospitals, police stations and DSD offices, especially if the DSD accompanies them with training, and includes the number of children relinquished into care as a performance indicator for DSD social workers. 

But, government prevention and intervention programmes lack urgency and effectiveness, as attested by abandonment stats. And societal circumstances in our country and resultant desperation mean there is no end to abandonment in sight. 

It’s therefore time to deal with the reality of abandonment rather than pretending that the savers are the genesis of the problem and that if abandonment numbers aren’t tracked and managed, abandonment isn’t happening.  

Ignoring this scourge won’t allow government to escape the consequences if it fails to end it. 

Baby savers an ‘essential service’

To quote Dr Sheheda Omar from the Teddy Bear Clinic, when you acknowledge that women who abandon feel that they have no other option, and that most abandoned babies die, it makes baby savers an “essential service”. Reinforcing that the right to life always trumps the right to identity, Omar explains that if you accept that the children placed in baby savers were going to be abandoned, not raised or placed in the child protection system, avoiding death, disability or psychological damage will always be in the child’s best interests. 

It’s also in the best interests of government. Now that the UNCRC has flagged abandonment as a reporting issue, government will be required in terms of the country’s treaty obligations to track abandonments (including those that result in death) and to show progress in minimising unsafe abandonments. Moreover, if the department deliberately denies children their inalienable rights to life and dignity, they could be deemed to have acted unconstitutionally. 

Government therefore needs to withdraw its directive and work with baby savers across the country to ensure that all savers are registered with BSSA and that the processes outlined in the act for placing a child into the child protection system are followed by those running savers. Further, it should expedite amendments to the Children’s Act to make safe relinquishment legal.  

In the interim though, DSD intransigence is costing many of our most vulnerable their lives. It seems incomprehensible that government must be compelled to save the lives of infants, but until it ends this perpetration of violence against those with no voices to protest, the 16 days of activism for no violence against women and children is a farce. DM

First published in the Daily Maverick: 08.12.2023

Abuse and suicide, the spectre that haunts elite boys’ schools: Parktown Boys’ High (Part Two)

Abuse and suicide, the spectre that haunts elite boys’ schools: Parktown Boys’ High (Part Two)

When it comes to sexual abuse, grooming and physical brutality, what happens in school doesn’t always stay in school. For many boys, the trauma they experience in their elite schools indelibly changes their lives and can lead to their eventual death.

Listen to this article

Read Part One here.

In 2008, the 13,915 reasons for equity in sexual offences legislation study reported that 44% (two in every five) of the school-going boys included in the study had been sexually abused before the age of 18. Of those boys, 20% were abused by teachers. One in every 20 schoolboys in the study reported being asked to have sex by a teacher.

These shocking statistics were supported by the 2016 Optimus study which found that 36.3% of boys had been sexually abused before the age of 16.

US-based advocacy group, Darkness to Light, says that “child sexual abuse is likely the most prevalent health problem with the most serious array of consequences that children face.”

Research indicates that “sexual abuse and, to a lesser extent, physical abuse in childhood”, are consistently associated with suicidal behaviour and that “those reporting any traumatic experience in childhood show a two to five-fold higher risk of being suicide attempters compared to those who do not”.

This statistic was confirmed by 68 studies by psychologists from the University of Manchester and the University of South Wales which found that suicide attempts were:

  • Three times more likely for people who experienced sexual abuse as a child.
  • Two and a half times more likely for people who experienced physical abuse as a child.

Other significant contributing factors to suicidality are dissociation from the abuse, how severe and physically painful the abuse is, how long the abuse continues and the age at which it occurs: “Earlier onset of the sexual abuse and duration of the abuse were associated with more lifetime suicide attempts.”

The abuse allegedly perpetrated against Julio Mordoh, whose story is told in part one of this series, began when he was 10 and lasted for three years – to cope with the trauma, his brain disassociated from it. Small wonder he felt he could never recover.

Like Julio’s parents, Ben’s* family chose his elite school, Parktown Boys’ High School, because they wanted him to have the best possible opportunities in life. But before he had finished high school, they found themselves helpless onlookers as he hung from a bridge over the highway, threatening to let go.

To understand why he was on that bridge, his family points to the impact on Ben of his school’s devastating failure to safeguard its pupils from the outset, beginning with the Grade 8 initiation camp when he and the other boys were forcefully initiated into the “Parktown way”.

They were taught that weakness was frowned upon and that “snitches get stitches”. They were also taught that “what happens on tour, stays on tour.”

The outcome was that Ben and his classmates were well-schooled in secrets and boundary violations by the time their new water polo coach and junior hostel master, Collan Rex, arrived at the end of his Grade 8 year.

Rex then began to groom and sexually abuse the boys in his care.

In an interview with Ben, now 23, he described Rex as an overgrown schoolboy, charming with the parents but an instigator of trouble in the hostel, and able to overpower the boys physically and introduce illicit behaviours.

Like many other predators, Rex followed these stages when grooming Ben and at least 22 other boys in the boarding house and water polo team:

  • Identifying and targeting the child.
  • Gaining the child’s trust and access to the child often through needs or vulnerabilities.
  • Playing a role in the child’s life and filling a need for the child.
  • Creating a “special secret relationship” with the child while isolating the child.
  • Sexualising the relationship through the process of desensitisation.
  • Maintaining control of the relationship with the child.

Ben explains that Rex began working his way through the hostel and water polo boys carefully and slowly. Weeding out those who resisted, he then deliberately lured the other boys in, normalising pulling off their towels when they were changing, grabbing their genitals, wrestling them into submission, dry humping and team showering.

Rex used the hostel, which was off limits to parents and largely unpoliced by other teachers, as well as school tours, bus trips and time in the water polo pool and change rooms to take advantage of the boys.

Ben says that the behaviour became so commonplace that they began doing it to each other and the younger boys, and that Rex used the boys’ inappropriate actions towards each other, as well as contraband, to reinforce the secret.

The impact of Rex’s short tenure at the school has been well documented, culminating in him admitting to the content of 144 counts of sexual assault, 57 of which were for crimes committed against Ben, and 12 counts of common assault.

Rex did not plead guilty, instead arguing that what he did was part of the culture of water polo, which had also happened to him while he was a pupil at Parktown Boys.  Nonetheless, he was found guilty and sentenced to 23 years in jail.

Less well publicised, though, is what happened to the boys, especially Ben, who had been his victims, and who still had two or three years of school left when Rex was arrested.

Ben’s family describe him as fearless; one who would never back down from a challenge, a clown, but also a natural leader who didn’t like to see anyone else in pain, either physically or emotionally. He was also the one willing to take the fall or be a target to protect those weaker than himself.

It was those leadership qualities which appear to have made him a special target for Rex, but also made him the whistle-blower who exposed his erstwhile coach.

Ben explains that his now famous “missing water polo caps” ruse, which he says was designed to “stop [Rex’s] s#!%”, occurred after three major incidents, mostly on tour, where he and other boys were victimised in ways that were clearly no longer a “game”, as Rex made it out to be.

Strongly empathetic, Ben began to recognise that he and Rex’s other victims were starting to interact with younger boys in the same way that Rex did, and, seeing through those children’s eyes, he realised this was far from “normal” behaviour.

Ben says his goal was to get Rex fired, not send him to prison. But when he was arrested, it was Ben who helped other boys to come forward. After the arrest, authorities were struggling to get the boys to break the code of silence. It was Ben who explained to them that they had been groomed by Rex into believing that what happened to them was “not so bad”.  He also counselled them that they weren’t “snitching” if they told their stories.

For the boys, the question that changed everything was, “If you were a parent, would you be okay with this happening to your son?”

Ben’s family wonder if things would have turned out differently for him if the victims had been supported at the school rather than just by the hostel master and matron. The school also did little to protect the victims’ identities, and Ben’s role in Rex’s arrest quickly became common knowledge.

Ben was even confronted by a former Parktown Boys teacher at a water polo game, who told him he knew Ben was the one who “snitched”.

At the school, teachers and fellow pupils defended Rex. Unwilling to believe that he was an abuser, they expressed anger at the victims, leaving them isolated and vilified.

Luke Lamprecht, head of advocacy at Women and Men Against Child Abuse, describes how perpetrators use three strategies to avoid detection and prosecution: denial of facts, denial of responsibility and denial of impact on the victim, thus obfuscating the extent of the harm caused by their actions.

The unfortunate result is that schools and peers are often manipulated by that narrative and don’t believe the child.

Although the victims of Collan Rex were finally vindicated when he was found guilty, many had matriculated by that point. Their final years at Parktown Boys were therefore defined by their having exposed Rex and the resultant accusations that they had hurt their peers by “bringing the school into disrepute”.

report by the Harris Nupen Molebatsi (HNM) law firm, which has still not been released to the public, even in redacted form, is known to have documented in painful detail how these abuse survivors were isolated by teachers and fellow students, victimised, verbally abused, intimidated and even physically abused. Only one of these incidents led to the teacher resigning when faced with a disciplinary hearing.

It was particularly bad for the boys who were seen to have “snitched”.

In a well-publicised racist and victim-shaming rant that the boys recorded, the school’s former art teacher labelled the boys who had alerted authorities to Rex’s abuse as “snitches” and “evil”. He also crudely referenced what had happened in “room 13” behind closed doors in the hostel, before threatening to blow the hostel up.

Survivors had their leadership roles challenged and one of the boys left the school after being violently whipped in a water polo first team initiation and was then threatened and spat on because he broke the “code of silence” about the initiation.

After the lashing, Ben was appointed as captain of the water polo team in place of the boy who carried out the beating. Despite this, when Ben and his dad visited the school earlier this year, they discovered that Ben’s name had been removed from the board honouring past captains.

By the time the HNM report was finalised, three victims were in long-term counselling and six more were on suicide watch.

After a year of providing support for the other victims, Ben began struggling with trauma-induced depression, compounded by his ongoing experience of isolation.

Rex’s grooming was so effective that Ben was in turmoil about turning him in.  Ben confessed that he still feels sorry for his abuser and guilty about having him arrested, a feeling that was reinforced at school.

Edith Kriel, executive director of Jelly Beanz, a group dedicated to providing mental health services to children affected by sexual abuse and trauma, describes grooming as a process in which the child is psychologically manipulated in a myriad of nuanced and multi-layered ways to be entrapped in the relationship with the offender.

In that relationship, the child may be made to feel complicit in sexual acts that ensue, either through affection, gratitude or fear of the perpetrator. The sexual acts may further be minimised or normalised so the child doesn’t necessarily understand the wrongfulness of the behaviour.

According to Kriel, grooming and its impact is often the part of the sexual abuse which is most confusing to the child. She says it causes enormous emotional damage and has long-term consequences. She stresses that the betrayal of children’s trust hurts them deeply.

A 2023 Canadian study on externalisation of suffering among male survivors of sexual abuse found three main types of externalised behaviours: aggressive behaviours to express anger, rule-breaking and substance abuse to avoid suffering. Before the end of his time at Parktown, Ben manifested all three behaviours.

Darkness to Light’s research indicates that male survivors of sexual abuse are 2.6 times more likely to experience substance abuse problems than non-victims and more than 70% of male victims seek psychological help for substance abuse, suicidal thoughts and attempted suicide.

Ben began to struggle with destructive anger, which, to his dismay, was often directed at his family. A year after Rex’s arrest, he went from considering substance abuse a weakness that he abhorred, to finding ways to numb the pain of Rex’s abuse and the secondary victimisation he experienced at school.

Then came the fateful day in his matric year when Ben, convinced that he was hurting the ones he loved most, climbed out of his family’s car on a major road, ostensibly to walk back to his girlfriend’s house. He was followed by his twin brother who, seeing that Ben was overwrought, ran after him, worried he would do something desperate.

Ben says the more his twin followed him and fought to keep him safe, the more he ran. He finally broke through the fence that led him to a bridge across the N1 highway in Johannesburg. As his brother pleaded with him to stop, he found himself holding on by one arm, threatening to let go if his brother came any closer.

Ben vividly remembers the moment, while hanging from the side of the bridge, when he heard his brother crying. He kept his eyes on the tattoo on the arm that was still holding onto the bridge – a tattoo with the letters “IDBK” – the initials of his parents and brothers.  Ben didn’t let go.

Ben’s* life-saving tattoo. (Photo: Supplied)

If this were fiction, the story may have ended there, with Ben’s life-saving tattoo and a tearful reunion with his twin. But choosing not to die did not make living with the depression, anger or addiction that had become a constant part of Ben’s life post-abuse any easier for him or his family.

Shortly after, he was admitted to a psychiatric institution and placed on suicide watch. He was there for 56 days on 26 tablets a day. He wrote his matric finals in the facility.

The boy who had once dreamed of being an architect went from a top sportsman who excelled in maths to barely passing; from hating drugs to self-medicating to cope with the abuse and its aftermath.

And like the Mordohs, who are still struggling with the cost of Julio’s psychiatric care and rehab a year after his death, Ben’s family have had to sell a house and a car to give their son the support he needs.

Ben says that if it weren’t for his family, and now his commitment to his baby and fiancé, he might have succumbed to the pain years ago.

But even now that Ben has a new family and so much to live for, the emotional anguish of the abuse and the years that followed still occasionally drive him to desperation and back to high places.

As recently as July, after a prolonged bout of psychosis, a fear of letting his family down led him to the edge of a mountain. Once again, he didn’t jump.

The themes of abuse – including sexual abuse, victimisation and suicide – are tragically common to many stories from those who were once proud pupils of Parktown Boys.

As with sexual abuse, there is a strong causal link between traumatic physical abuse and suicide. And, unlike Ben, not all boys survive.

When Pene Kimber’s son was violently beaten by Grade 12s in a 2009 hostel initiation where boys had to run the gauntlet of matrics wielding cricket bats, hockey sticks and golf clubs, and were made to rub deep heat on their genitals to earn the privilege of using a kettle, the furore that followed resulted in many families telling their stories of initiation at the school.

In one tragic case, the parents of a teenager opened a case against the school after he was beaten there. They later withdrew it because the boy was being victimised. Their son went on to take his life.

In another story, a mother told of how her son had been relentlessly bullied at the school. She said he showed her damage caused by “wedgies”, where his underpants were ripped, causing bruising and splitting of the peri-anal area. Her son was frequently humiliated and told he was a “loser”.

When she threatened to go to the school, her son told her: “Mum, if you intervene, life will be far worse for me!”

She says that in hindsight, she realises a lot was hidden from her.

When she finally spoke to the then-headmaster, she says he told her that mothers tend to be over-protective and that she should understand this was a rite of passage for young men.  She was told not to worry about it.

Struggling with depression and anger, her son took his life shortly after finishing school. His psychologist said that he had never recovered from the helplessness he felt at school.

Bradley Skipper is another of those boys whose life was dramatically changed when he was at Parktown Boys.

Bradley, whose mom described him as a sensitive soul with a strong sense of fairness, was brutally beaten during a prefect’s assembly in October 2006 when he was in Grade 9.

The incoming prefects gave him punitive “PT” which involved smothering him in blazers, kicking his hands out from under him while he did push-ups, beating him in the back despite him telling them that he had scoliosis of the spine, forcing him to hold a bin full of bricks upright while they punched him in the ribs, and filling his mouth with cigarette stumps.

Despite his mother’s best efforts, only two of the boys involved were sanctioned by having their prefect’s badges removed for two weeks. But the teacher who was allegedly present at the time, and who at first denied that the assault occurred, wasn’t sanctioned. Nor was the seemingly endorsed violence addressed.

Instead, the master who investigated the incident warned Bradley’s mother that her son was now open to victimisation because he had “snitched”.

Bradley’s mom removed him from the school immediately and tried, through the headmaster, the South African Council of Educators, the provincial department of education, the Human Rights Commission and even the Minister of Education, to get justice for her son and end the culture of initiation and secrecy at the school. Her efforts were in vain.

Three years later, when Pene Kimber’s son was assaulted at the school, Bradley spoke to the media on condition of anonymity. In an article aptly sub-titled, “Fit in or F..k off”, he explained that he was terrified for his life:

“I am too scared to reveal myself. Parktown Boys has an extensive old boys’ network and I could be killed anytime I set foot in a club or a mall. When I left the school, the deputy headmaster told me I had better watch my back because he can’t do it for me.”

After 11 years of living with the fear and trauma of that day, Bradley died by suicide at the end of 2017.

In a written comment received from the school governing body (SGB) of Parktown Boys for this article, the school acknowledged that what “some of our boys went through in the past can never be diminished or forgotten.”

It said that, since 2019, the school had been implementing the recommendations of the HNM report and receiving expert input from both Luke Lamprecht and Rees Mann from Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse.

The SGB further affirmed that “the school is determined that these tragic events will never be repeated” and that “there continues to be an unrelenting and shared focus on the process of healing, learning and advancing transformation that we have embarked upon to forever change our culture.”

In 2020, Bradley was memorialised at Parktown Boys in a plaque that was laid outside the hostel on the same day that the school safety bell was installed. It was meant to be a commitment by the school and its pupils to put an end to violent initiations and abuse.

parktown boys

Bradley Skipper’s memorial stone: October 2020. (Photo: Robyn Wolfson Vorster) / Bradley Skipper, Grade 9 Parktown Boys High School. (Photo: Supplied)

Both the bell and plaque were removed by their donors when the heads of hostel, Chris and Mariolette Bossert, left the school.

The plaque dedicated to Bradley has since been placed at the Fight with Insight programme in the Children’s Memorial Institute as a reminder that abuse can drive vulnerable children to desperation, and also as a challenge to adults to never stop fighting for the protection, safeguarding and care of their children.

In the final article in this series, we tell the story of Thomas Kruger and ask why, on the 5th anniversary of his tragic death – despite an explosive podcast, an independent review, a change in leadership at the school and criminal and legal investigations – authorities seem no closer to delivering justice or even providing answers to his grieving family about why he died. DM

If a child you know has been affected by sexual or physical abuse or is at risk for suicide, please contact Childline’s Helpline 24X7 on 116 (free from all networks) or visit their Online Counselling chatrooms. Alternatively, email reportsafely@STOPS.co.za to report abuse.

These articles were written in loving memory of:

Julio Mordoh:  08.01.2002–05.11.2022

Thomas Kruger: 20.03.2002–18.11.2018

Bradley Skipper: 18.12.1989–30.12.2017

*Name changed to protect the identity of the victim.

First published in the Daily Maverick: 08:12:2023

Sexual abuse and suicide, the spectre that haunts elite boys’ schools: St John’s College (Part One)

Sexual abuse and suicide, the spectre that haunts elite boys’ schools: St John’s College (Part One)

About two in five boys in South Africa are sexually abused before the age of 18. Of those boys, 20% are abused by teachers. Those reporting traumatic childhood experiences such as sexual and physical abuse are 2-5 times more likely to attempt suicide, with early onset of trauma an even stronger predictor. Given those statistics, we should not be asking why Julio Mordoh died, but rather how his abuse occurred at the elite boys’ school tasked with safeguarding him.

Listen to this article

On 5 November 2022, Teresa Mordoh received a phone call that’s every parent’s worst nightmare. She was told that her son, Julio, had attempted suicide.  

She and her family were en route to see him, bringing a cake to celebrate his father Marcio’s birthday, when the heart-stopping call came.  

During the frantic trip across town, Teresa tried to cling to hope – it wasn’t the first time Julio had tried to take his life.  

Desperate for news, she called again, only to be told that paramedics were unable to resuscitate him and that Julio had been pronounced dead.  

In a Facebook post paying tribute to her son, Teresa described how she wished they could have “flown over the traffic on Saturday to get there just a few mins earlier to save you and tell you again how much we love you”. 

She explained how, when they finally arrived, her son’s body was lying lifeless on the floor. He was still warm when she hugged and kissed him goodbye. 

While they couldn’t intervene on the day Julio’s life ended, the family had done everything possible to support and save him. 

When Julio Mordoh died just two months before his 21st birthday, he had been assessed by six psychiatrists, treated by eight psychologists, spent over 12 months in treatment as an inpatient, and been hospitalised 12 times for mental health-related conditions, including complex post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidality.

On the day he hanged himself with his belt, he was in a secure, private psychiatric facility where he’d been admitted as a high-risk patient to keep him from self-harming.

Teresa remembers little of the terrible moments following her son’s death, but she does recall every decision that brought them to that day.

Describing Julio as a calm and loving baby with huge brown eyes, she says that while he was diminutive in stature, like his parents, it was obvious from the time that he was in pre-school how talented and clever he was. He competed in gymnastics at the highest level from a very young age.  

A deep thinker, he was obsessed with finding out how things worked, and designing and inventing everything from water rockets to a go-kart, and then building them with his dad. 

It was his intelligence that made the family choose to send him to the best school they could afford. With its excellent academic record, St John’s College in Houghton, Johannesburg, seemed the best fit. They even bought a house within a stone’s throw of the school.

As Teresa and I sat drinking tea on her veranda, surveying the family’s wild and beautiful garden complete with tree houses and homemade forts, we could hear the St John’s school bell chiming 10.

Although we can’t see the clock tower Julio allegedly climbed while in prep school, for the Mordoh family, the melodic chiming is a haunting hourly reminder of the suffering he endured.  

St John’s formed a significant part of Julio’s life.  He was there for pre-prep and prep school, and then, after the family spent his high school years in France and Dubai, he chose to return home to complete his A-levels at the school.  

His experiences in pre-prep and 6th Form were positive ones, but Teresa says that he felt very differently about the prep school. She describes how in the year that he died they visited the school together, which gave Julio the opportunity to show his mother some of his favourite places, including the science lab and 6th Form lounge.  

She says she was struck, however, by how his demeanour and body language changed and how he withdrew into himself when he walked into the prep school. 

By then, she knew why.

***

According to Teresa, the catalyst for a major change in Julio’s life was St John’s requirement for all boys to participate in school sporting activities.  

By the time Julio was in prep school, he was already competing in gymnastics (a sport not offered by the school) at national and then international level. In his second year at prep school, he received a special dispensation excusing him from school sports and even school recognition for his achievements. 

But his exclusion left him isolated from his peers. That, along with his size and intellect, made him a target for bullying.  

After a bullying incident that Julio downplayed because he didn’t want to be a snitch or singled out, his headmaster suggested that Julio have weekly hour-long counselling sessions with the prep’s head of pastoral care.

According to Teresa, the head of pastoral care was a friendly, caring and approachable man. He seemed to take a keen interest in Julio and his well-being and kept in WhatsApp contact with her about Julio’s progress and emotional stability. 

In addition to counselling sessions, the head of pastoral care, who was also in charge of rock climbing at St John’s, presented climbing as a solution to both Julio’s isolation and the ongoing bullying.  

Julio’s upper body strength and agility made him a perfect candidate for climbing, at the time an emerging sport at the school. Although boys were not allowed to climb until they were 12 years old, the teacher offered him the opportunity to start training in 2013 when he was only 11.  

Unbeknownst to the family, he invited Julio to go bouldering in the school “cave” during break. Julio disclosed to a friend that the teacher warned him not to tell anyone, especially his parents, in case they got angry and he wasn’t allowed to climb anymore.

His teacher also permitted him to climb the school climbing wall which was supposed to be off limits until he was in Grade 6. It was another secret, along with his reported climbing of the school’s bell tower.

By the end of that year, Julio’s mother had seen a notable change in his behaviour. He was more withdrawn, sad, private and less willing to connect with his dad or open up to her. 

She attributed it to his age, but sought help from the headmaster when Julio began to resist going to school and stopped sleeping well. Teresa says he seemed visibly afraid of school and refused to attend sessions with the school’s male psychologist.  

Once again, the school’s proposed solution was counselling with its head of pastoral care.

Despite his distress, Julio continued to excel academically and in gymnastics, and in August 2014, he won the U13 SA National Rock Climbing Championship. 

Teresa remembers Julio’s climbing teacher encouraging him to go on weekend trips with the school’s explorers to get climbing experience.  But despite his persistence, Teresa wouldn’t let Julio camp unsupervised overnight, citing his weekend gymnastics commitments as an excuse.  

However, in November 2014, a few months after his nationals win, she did allow him to go on a day trip to the Magaliesberg with his climbing teacher and some other boys.  

Teresa describes her dismay when it got dark and her son had still not returned. When he finally got home at 7pm, he was the only boy in the car.

As Marcio invited the teacher in for coffee, Julio rushed off to shower.  But before leaving, the head of pastoral care insisted on giving Julio his engraved Leatherman as a “reminder of the special day”. Julio reluctantly accepted the gift but then hid it away. His mother says he never used it. 

It wasn’t long after that the head of pastoral care and climbing teacher, whose name is inscribed on the Leatherman he gave Julio, left the college to take up a deputy head position at another school.  

Shortly thereafter, on the cusp of qualifying for the 2015 World Championships, Julio stopped climbing.

***

What happened during Julio’s time in the prep school stayed buried through his teenage years when the Mordohs lived in France and then Dubai, until five years later when the family returned to South Africa. 

While Julio was excited to be home and seemingly enjoyed 6th Form at St John’s, his anxiety intensified and his insomnia worsened.  

His mother describes how he would come home from school with goosebumps and visibly shaky. After suffering more extreme anxiety and panic attacks, his psychologist diagnosed him with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

When the psychologist briefed the family, one of the first questions she asked was if Julio had been sexually abused.  

It was a question no one could answer. Despite the diagnosis and help from his psychologist, Julio wasn’t able to access what had caused the trauma, so after completing 6th Form in 2020, he chose to spend his gap year seeking help.

During his long-term treatment, Julio wrote this: “There are one or two things that I haven’t shared with anyone yet… I’ve pushed this to the deepest, darkest corner of my mind and tried hard to delete it from my memory entirely. Saying it out loud makes it real and validates that it actually happened.” 

sexual abuse suicide

Writing from Julio Mordoh’s diary. (Photo: Supplied)

The diary entry was written shortly before 15 November 2021, when St John’s released a letter notifying the school community that several past pupils had alleged sexual assault by a former teacher who had been employed in the prep school between 2002 and 2014, and that charges had been laid with the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences unit and the matter reported to the South African Council of Educators and the Anglican Safe Church Unit.

Teresa remembers how, when Julio’s psychologist read him the letter, his head dropped and his body stiffened. When she had finished reading, all he could say was: “Oh, so there were other boys. I thought I was the only one.” 

On hearing his words, Teresa says she felt as if her heart shattered into a million pieces, realising her son had suffered the shame of thinking he was the only victim and therefore somehow to blame.

Julio’s psychologist, who believed that Julio would have benefited from group therapy to deal with those feelings of shame and isolation in a safe space with other survivors, offered to facilitate group therapy for the victims. 

But the school declined, confirming that it was providing the victims with psychological support if required, but that everyone was “on a different journey” and cited victims’ requests for privacy. 

In a written response to questions for this article, the school’s executive headmaster, Stuart West, stressed that “the need for such a process was not shared by other victims and could not be imposed on them.”

Perhaps for this reason, Julio never disclosed the details of his abuse. However, a close friend said he told her that it went on for a long time and that he felt confused, tormented and irreparably damaged. 

He said that “he felt broken and wished his life was over. He didn’t think he’d ever be able to fix himself”. 

It was the message that he conveyed to St John’s when he was finally ready to meet with the school in July 2022, three months after allowing his psychologist to disclose to the school that he was also a victim.  

In September 2022, two months after he met with the head of human resources at St John’s, the family received a letter from the headmaster expressing alarm over Julio’s suicidality and stating that “without any admission of liability” the school would “sponsor a short-term hospitalisation at an approved mental health facility that specialises in patients that are at risk.” 

En route to being admitted, Julio went to a police station where he wrote an affidavit stating that he had been sexually abused by his climbing coach (who he names) while a pupil at St John’s College during the years of 2011 to the end of 2014 when he was aged 10 to 12 years old.  

It was his final act of defiance against the abuse that forever altered his life.  

***

Shortly thereafter, while in the supposedly secure facility, after begging unsuccessfully to be sedated following intense dreams, flashbacks and extreme agitation, Julio hanged himself. 

Although 10 survivors of the abuse at St John’s prep school came forward, the case against Julio’s alleged abuser, which was moved to Rustenburg in November 2021, stalled because there was no active investigation. 

Attorney Ian Levitt subsequently became involved, resulting in the case being incorporated into Operation Nemo and Colonel Heila Niemand being appointed as the special investigating officer. 

On 9 October 2023, the former head of pastoral care at St John’s prep, who cannot be named until he has pleaded to the charges, finally appeared in court. 

The case was postponed to 7 December.

Headmaster West emphasised the importance of duty of care and said the school continues to support the complainants in the case. He also referenced a report by retired Constitutional Court judge Johan Froneman commissioned by the school after the allegations of abuse emerged. It was deemed too confidential for release even in a redacted form, but a summary was sent to the school community. 

The report noted that the school had no knowledge of the allegations of abuse prior to 2021. It also noted that during the prep teacher’s tenure, no complaints were made against him by pupils. 

The summarised report provides little explanation of how the former head of pastoral care was able to abuse boys undetected throughout his 12-year employment at St John’s, but does note that “two complaints were taken by Prep staff to their Head during the former teacher’s tenure, and these were appropriately dealt with by the Prep Head at the time.” 

While the nature of those complaints is not detailed, the report stresses that Froneman “did not uncover improper management of the complaints… given the knowledge available at the time regarding sexual and other abuse”. 

Tragically, Julio is one of many pupils who are sexually or physically abused at one of South Africa’s elite boy’s schools. 

The second of this two-part series tells the stories of two other boys whose lives ended tragically following abuse at two other schools, and unpacks South Africa’s horror statistics about the sexual abuse of boys and the link between abuse and suicide. DM

If a child you know has been affected by sexual abuse or is at risk for suicide, please contact Childline’s Helpline 24X7 on 116 (free from all networks) or visit their Online Counselling chatrooms.

These articles were written in loving memory of:

Julio Mordoh:  08.01.2002–05.11.2022
Thomas Kruger: 20.03.2002–17.11.2018
Bradley Skipper: 18.12.1989–30.12.2017

First published in the Daily Maverick: 2023.10.10

Like sweeping leaves in a cyclone, Child Protection Week echoes with empty promises

Like sweeping leaves in a cyclone, Child Protection Week echoes with empty promises

It’s the end of another Child Protection Week, proof positive of a government without a cohesive funded strategy for child protection, or anything related to children, and one seemingly unaware of the extent of the crisis. 

Listen to this article: BeyondWords

If you recognised the name of government’s 2023 Child Protection Week campaign: “Let’s all protect children through Covid-19 and beyond”, it’s because it was the title of the 2022 campaign, and the 2021 one, and the 2020 one. The content on the official government website is also a copy and paste from the last three years.

It’s why when asked in an eNCA interview at the launch of the week if Covid was the most critical challenge for children, the Minister of Social Development, Lindiwe Zulu accurately replied that the campaign was developed while Covid was still a factor.

She did stress however that the “and beyond” allowed room for the week to address all the many ills our children are currently facing.

While that’s apposite, the department could have steered clear of any Covid references, given that government missed many vital opportunities to protect children during the pandemic and that children continue to be affected.

The psycho-social impact of the pandemic is still largely unmanaged. Government has also been slow to acknowledge its role in the mass closure of early childhood development centres and its failure to recognise increases in the numbers of orphans and abandoned children, or respond meaningfully to escalations in teen pregnancies, violence and exploitation, or those suffering from malnutrition and stunting.

Consequently, it might have been opportune for the Department of Social Development (DSD) to revert to its pre-Covid campaign title: “Let’s protect children to move South Africa forwards”, notable because it links the well-being of children to the future of the country.

According to activists and academics, who stress the importance of extending child protection to the prevention of a myriad of adverse childhood experiences such as hunger, poverty, poor housing, inadequate early childhood development and schooling, abandonment, deprivation of family care, violence, homicide, and a lack of opportunity, economic mobility and social capital, the picture is a bleak one.

How big is the problem?

The shadow report submitted to the African Union by the South African National Child Rights Coalition (SANCRC) and statistics and analysis compiled by the Children’s Institute, both drawing from multiple global and local studies, reveal how dire our children’s situation is.

In 2020, 62.1% of South African children lived in multiple deprivation poverty, measured by their access to combined services and support: income support, health, nutrition, water and sanitation, education, and protection.

Historically marginalised children experience much higher deprivations. In 2022, more than a third of children in South Africa lived below the food poverty line of R663 per month. This has been exacerbated by below-inflation increases for the Child Support Grant (CSG), leaving families poorer and children hungrier.

The Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity Group found that in May 2023 the CSG (R500) was 25% below the food poverty line (R663) and 45% below the average cost to secure a basic nutritious diet for a child (R901,19).

Of every 1,000 children born in South Africa, 28 die before their fifth birthday. Half of all child deaths in hospitals are associated with malnutrition. Only 23% of children between six and 23 months receive a minimum acceptable diet.

Further, 30% of boy children and 25% of girl children under the age of five are stunted, meaning that they cannot reach their full growth and development potential because of the irreversible physical and cognitive damage caused by persistent nutritional deprivation. Stunted children are more vulnerable to disease and cannot learn effectively, are more likely to drop out of school, struggle with unemployment and live in poverty as adults. Stunting exacerbates the triple challenge of unemployment, poverty and inequality that the government keeps promising to eradicate.

The Thrive by Five Index indicated that 57% of children attending an Early Learning Programme (ELP) were not on track for cognitive and, or physical development.

The World Bank’s Human Capital Index from 2021 showed that children born in South Africa today will only develop to 43% of their potential, compared to a global average of 56%. A 2015 study by Save the Children South Africa estimated that this loss of human capital equated to roughly R238-billion (about 6% of that year’s GDP).

In 2016, only 51% of 20–24-year-olds had completed matric or its equivalent. Less than 20% of children in no-fee schools achieved above the lowest international benchmark in maths.

Further, the quality of this schooling is so poor. Children who received 10.2 years of schooling have effectively only received an estimated 5.6 years. The recent Pirls report indicated that in 2021, 81% of Grade 4 learners could not read for meaning in any language. Accompanying analysis showed that many children lost up to a year of learning during the pandemic.

A year following the pandemic’s end, only the Western Cape has a learning catch-up plan.

A 2016 Optimus study found that 42% of children had experienced some form of maltreatment (whether sexual, physical, emotional or neglect), while 82% experienced victimisation (whether criminal or exposure to family or community violence).

Further, 34.4% of adolescents reported having been hit, beaten, kicked or physically hurt by an adult caregiver over their lifetime. Approximately one in every three adolescents (girls and boys) have experienced some form of sexual abuse. Community studies show far higher rates of exposure and trauma, 99% in Soweto, and 80% in Khayelitsha.

The Birth to Thirty study published in 2022 assessed a broad range of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) from physical and sexual abuse to exposure to community violence and poverty. Results indicate that 87% of children in the sample were exposed to four or more adverse childhood experiences, and that by age 18, only 9% of the sample hadn’t been exposed to a single ACE.

Some contributing factors to the problems

Civil society contends that historical challenges have been exacerbated by government’s evident failure to prioritise, plan or budget for the protection of children.

Despite government’s tacit acceptance that prioritising children is essential for the country, government’s Medium-Term Strategic Framework (MTSF) 2019–2025 which spotlights women, youth and those with disabilities, makes no mention of children.

In addition, the president’s 2023 State of the Nation Address (Sona) only included children in the context of early childhood development and gender-based violence (where violence against them is conflated with that against women, despite women often being the perpetrators).

Further, the president promised in Sona that grants would be increased to cushion the poor against inflation.

However, the national budget failed to respond to the increasing gap between the Food Poverty Line and the value of the CSG, especially as food inflation rates continue to be almost double the CPI inflation, increasing to 13.8% in January 2023. Treasury again only committed to below-inflation increases in the CSG and Foster Care Grants (FCG).

The budget made no further mention of children or their development.

While the under-resourced and inept DSD is “in the forefront” of child protection, children’s services collectively are fragmented across multiple government departments including health, home affairs, education, and justice, with an evident lack of coordination, oversight and planning from the presidency.

What can be done?

Activists suggest the following:

1 Elevate children to a strategic priority and plan, budget and resource the sector accordingly

Civil society recommends that the state, at the highest levels of the Presidency, premiers’ and mayors’ offices, acknowledge that to implement the country’s treaty responsibilities and uphold its Constitution, South Africa needs a national child rights governance system overseen by an effective and resourced Office on the Rights of the Child (ORC) located in the Presidency, but not in the Department of Women.

The achievement of children’s rights to equality, to survive and to develop to their full potential should be recognised as national development priority in the Medium-Term Strategic Framework and included in government’s Sona and Sopa addresses.

The Ministry of Finance should recognise children’s development as a national priority and budget accordingly.

Improving the outcomes for children should be monitored and authorities held accountable for failure to realise specific outcomes.

2 Eliminate ‘the slow violence of child hunger’

This requires government to recognise that it can no longer economise on the CSG or ignore the cost to the country of keeping the quantum of the grant, which studies have shown contributes to better health, nutrition and educational outcomes for children, below the food poverty line. This economising, according to Katherine Hall and Paula Proudlock of the Children’s Institute, is achieved by taking: “food from the mouths of children.” 

Further, Dr Chantell Witten states that government needs to address its macro food policy. She says that in South Africa, retailers are making profits against the hunger curve. The Grow Great zero-stunting campaign has identified 10 nutritious foods for child development. To dramatically minimise stunting, it is campaigning to make these 10 foods (which include eggs, peanut butter, full cream milk, dried beans, tinned fish and bread) 20% cheaper by asking retailers to waive their markups and government to subsidise these products. 

Moreover, government must take its constitutional duty to provide food for learners through the National School Nutritional Programme (NSNP) seriously. Global studies show how school feeding programmes can improve school attendance, and children’s ability to learn. The NSNP supplements the nutrition of half of all children in South Africa.

Following the closure and partial reinstatement of the NSNP during lockdown, the high court confirmed that the right to basic education and the child’s right to basic nutrition is an unqualified right, and asked for “the justice of eating”. It ordered the Department of Education to reinstitute the programme for all 9.6 million children regardless of if they’d returned to school. 

Yet, in April and May 2023, more than a million children in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape went hungry after a change to the procurement system in KZN and failure to pay subsidies timeously in the EC. 

Heart-breaking headlines reported children crying from hunger, schools closing early because children could not learn, and children begging for food on the streets. According to Section 27, these failures “pointed to broader problems with the funding and administration of the NSNP.” 

Advocacy groups note that the executive and Parliament’s response holding the respective provincial departments of education accountable was heartening, but this was another graphic example of government indifference, resulting in what the high court judge called, “the obscenity of hunger”.

While the NSNP is a priority, food for children in early childhood development is not. The government subsidy to registered ECDs to prepare food for children is a paltry R6.80 per child per day. More troubling, only 33% of ECDs, 627,000 children, receive government subsidies, so most under-fives (the age when stunting occurs) don’t receive government subsidies for food. Both the registration requirements and quantum of the subsidy need urgent attention. 

Another strategic intervention against stunting is to extend the CSG to pregnant women to ensure adequate nutrition during pregnancy. A 2021 Embrace, Grow Great, and Stellenbosch University study found that pregnant women in the poorest communities were going hungry, experiencing poor mental health and economic insecurity, which was negatively affecting their children’s development and extending intergenerational cycles of poverty.

The study showed that extending grants to pregnant women would increase the grant budget by a mere 1.5% and have a significant impact on infant health and development. 

3 Focus on prevention of violence and child homicide

Extending the CSG to pregnant mothers is also critical to minimise the number of mothers abandoning their babies for financial reasons.

In addition, government needs to be held accountable for its unwillingness to legalise the safe relinquishment of babies through baby savers. Unsafe infant abandonment, often the only option in the absence of safe relinquishment, leads to psychological and physical scarring, ongoing trauma, and frequently results in death.

In 2021, civil society attempted to introduce amendments to the Children’s Act to legalise safe relinquishment, but was opposed by the DSD who considered the life-saving amendments “unconstitutional”. As government stonewalls, more children die.

Moreover, studies have shown that while government is pouring money into policing and the criminal justice system, less than 1% of the DSD’s annual budget is spent on violence prevention or early intervention despite evidence that preventing children from witnessing and experiencing violence stops the cycle of deprivation and disadvantage.

A redirection of funds to violence prevention and family strengthening initiatives is critical for children’s protection. 

4 Facilitate safe family care 

In 2020, South Africa had 2.9 million orphans and by December 2022, a further 168,200 had lost their primary caregiver to Covid. While many orphans are in safe family care, they are, by definition, at greater risk of poverty, abuse, and exploitation. 

Yet, adoption rates declined to a paltry 849 in 2020/2021, a 65% drop in the last 10 years, the foster care system has been broken for more than a decade, and without sufficient alternative family care, plans to deinstitutionalise children present a real danger.   

Further, while the department prioritises family care for children, it’s less willing to fund parenting programmes and other resources necessary to make those families a safe space. This, despite children emphasising the need for their parents to get skills and psychosocial support to parent them more effectively.

5 Consistently and adequately resource the helpers

Violence prevention for children requires the active and engaged presence of social workers in communities. But although the National Development Plan calls for 55,000 social workers by 2030, in March 2023, Minister Zulu reported that there were only 22,000 social workers employed in public service (across all sectors). The department aims to grow the number to 31,744 by 2030 at an estimated cost of R9-billion. It’s positive, but even if achieved, that’s still 23,256 social workers too few.

The situation for NGOs is even more desperate. In a Western Cape Child Protection Alliance press statement released for Child Protection Week 2023, 70% of the child protection services in the province claim that although NGOs in the Western Cape provide 55% of child protection services, their subsidies have remained stagnant for the last five years, despite inflation. The upshot is that funding has diminished by 20-25% during the period.

In Gauteng, analysis done by activist Lisa Vetten revealed that its 2023 budget contained a massive 31.4% drop in funding to social welfare services including a 21.1% budget cut to programmes working with families, and a 4.6% drop in funding to community care programmes. Child protection organisations were obligated to provide the same services to the same numbers of children with as much as a 60% cut in salaries.

The Gauteng premier walked back the changes following a national public outcry, but the drastic cuts are not unprecedented and NGOs hit the headlines complaining of late or non-payment of subsidies resulting in increasing risk of NGO closures at the beginning of every financial year.

Such closures are disastrous given government’s lack of resources and its cost structures, on average two to three times higher than those of non-profits. The effect would be increasing non-delivery of services to children, incomprehensible if child protection is indeed a priority.

6 Recognise the role of education in child protection

No one questions the role of education in lifting children out of poverty with its concomitant risks of exposure to violence and adverse childhood experiences. In addition, keeping children in school should be a critical priority since, “without the protection afforded by educational systems, including access to school feeding programmes, millions of children, particularly girls, are at higher risk of violence, exploitation, neglect, malnutrition and online abuse”.

Drop-out rates are therefore concerning. While the department lauded the 65% of learners who completed a matric or TVET national certificate in 2022, MPs paint a different picture. In Gauteng alone, 260,000 learners did not return to school in 2022. Parliamentarians believe that for children to stay in school, government needs to “build more schools, improve teaching and learning to a better quality, give schools and educators the best tools to make a success of our children’s future.” And, we could add, fix broken infrastructure in the existing schools.

But, although government allocated R22-billion to basic education in the most recent budget, statistics show that in real terms the percentage of GDP allocated to education has dropped from 20.5% of GDP in 2001 to 18.42% in 2023.

7 Elevate the voices of children 

During Child Protection Week media briefings, the minister emphasised the importance of hearing children’s voices, which the department does primarily through the Nelson Mandela Children’s Parliament. While it’s progress for government to get feedback from children, there’s no process to ensure that input from the children’s parliament affects government policy or practices.

Nor is the children’s parliament representative. Conspicuous by their absence are the voices of the stunted children forced to drop out of school because they don’t have the cognitive ability to cope with the rigours of learning, and those whose caregivers can only afford to feed them one meal a day because the grant doesn’t stretch to the end of the month. 

Nor do we hear from the children who left school to beg for food when the NSNP meals didn’t arrive, or those who go hungry every second day because their province’s NSNP meals are so small and insufficient that “stokvelling” them with a friend and only eating twice a week seems better than eating too little every day. 

Absent are the stories of the physically or sexually abused or abandoned children who don’t always live to tell them.

Like the four-year-old toddler from Durban whose mother tied her hands with tape and then drowned her in a bucket full of water because she was “difficult and troubling her”, or the seven- and nine-year-old girls from Port Shepstone who were raped by their 19-year-old brother and step-father; the girls whose mother hit them and then bathed them repeatedly to remove the evidence after they told her about the abuse.

We’re lacking the voice of the Grade 10 pupil whose teacher asked her and other learners for sex to improve their marks, and the children, aged six and 14 who were murdered and left in a burning house by their mother’s ex-boyfriend.

And poignantly, we cannot hear the voice of a tiny newborn whose mother abandoned him in a pit latrine in an informal settlement in Pietermaritzburg shortly after his birth. His rescue by members of the community was heralded as a miracle, but he died in hospital the following day.

Responding to his death, a representative of the DSD inadvertently identified the root problem when he said that “the incident is extremely troubling, especially now during Child Protection Month. What is strange is some people in our communities are aware of what the department is capable of doing.” He then went on to tell women to take their unwanted children to “social workers, police stations and clinics so they can get assistance.”

It was said without irony, despite the department’s fierce opposition to safe relinquishment laws that would allow desperate women to relinquish their unwanted children without the consequence of being turned away or risking arrest, and despite the department reputedly often doing very little to help.

At the heart of the issue is that while it is “in our hands to stop the cycle of neglect, abuse, violence and exploitation of children”, government cannot be outraged when a tragedy occurs during Child Protection Week when it failed to acknowledge or use careful strategy, planning and resourcing to eliminate the root cause in the remainder of the year.

Nor, if it was honest, should the DSD’s messaging champion the Constitution or the rights of the child. While it is true that “children in South Africa live in a society with a Constitution that has the highest regard for their rights and for the equality and dignity of everyone” and that “protecting children from violence, exploitation and abuse is not only a basic value, but also an obligation clearly set out in Article 28 of the South African Constitution,” there is no dignity in children starving to death, or drowning in a pit latrine unacknowledged and unaided by the authorities whose job is to protect them.

Without effective support at the highest level, Child Protection Week is analogous to sweeping leaves in a cyclone.

Unquestionably it’s time to pack away the pins and campaign promises and instead build children’s rights into the country’s strategic plans, budgets and structures, and resource it accordingly. Only then should we really claim to be upholding children’s rights to protection from violence, their right to dignity, and claim that we are acting in their best interests. DM

First published in the  Daily Maverick: 06.06.2023

To cite please use the author’s name, the year of publication, the title of the article, name of publication, date of publication.