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.
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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.
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 radio, television 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.
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 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.
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
It’s been four years since Namibia legalised ‘safe relinquishment’. This followed government, civil society and the ruling party’s youth and women’s leagues declaring child abandonment a national crisis when 13 babies were found dead every month. By contrast, despite South Africa’s exponentially bigger problem, its government opposes legislation to end unsafe abandonment. It begs the question, do South African authorities really believe that every child has a constitutional right to life, or are the lives of Namibian babies more important than ours?
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Namibia began 2023 with a campaign to inform women of their right to safely relinquish a child that they cannot care for.
South Africa started 2023 the same way it ended 2022, with soaring numbers of abandonments, media reports indicating that for every child that survives abandonment, at least one, but as many as two, die, abandoning mothers being arrested despite being failed by authorities when they attempt to put their children into the child protection system, and no approved plan to minimise or mitigate the impact of unsafe abandonment.
By contrast, the Namibian campaign is a follow-up to its government declaring child abandonment a national crisis and a resultant 2019 change to legislation allowing for the safe relinquishment of a child that parents chose not to raise.
Safe relinquishment is defined as the safe, usually anonymous, surrender or placement of a child into a baby saver, or with a designated safe haven provider. Certain criteria must be met for the child to be safely relinquished, including that the child be below a certain age, and free from abuse, neglect or malnutrition.
The number of babies that were being abandoned prior to Namibia’s legislative change is unknown. But, in her 2021 article in the African Human Rights Law Journal on curbing unsafe baby abandonment, Dr Whitney Rosenberg, whose doctoral thesis is on global practices for the safe relinquishment of babies, described how in 2008 staff at the water works in Namibia’s capital Windhoek reported 13 babies were dumped or flushed down toilets every month.
Although Namibian abandonment statistics were hard to access, Rosenberg highlighted widespread concern expressed across the Namibian government and the ruling party about the prevalence and impact of child abandonment.
The need for intervention was voiced by the departments of Home Affairs, whose minister stressed children’s right to life as protected in article 6 of the Namibian constitution; Health, whose deputy minister emphasised the need to train health care workers to deal more sensitively with pregnant teens; and Gender Equality and Child Welfare, whose minister articulated the need to provide support and services for desperate pregnant women. Parliament, Women’s Action for Development (WAD), the SWAPO Party Women’s Council and the SWAPO Party Youth League all called for increased government action to combat unsafe abandonment.
Combined government and civil society pressure led to the 2019 promulgation of the country’s Child Care and Protection Act which included a clause prohibiting the prosecution of women who relinquish their babies safely at a prescribed location (such as a police station, hospital or place of safety), and whose baby shows no signs of harm.
Significantly, this law, which decriminalises the safe relinquishment of babies, was Namibia’s first departure from child-focused legislation that it inherited from South Africa, and was also driven by a need to decolonise its legislation and create child-related laws that are relevant in Africa.
Despite the change in law, the BBC reported that 140 babies were still abandoned unsafely across Namibia between 2018 and 2022. This prompted its government to initiate the 2023 awareness campaign encouraging women to make use of baby savers or relinquish their babies safely with authorities.
SA’s different approach
Although Namibia and South Africa are neighbours, South Africa’s approach to abandonment could not be more different.
During the 2021 and 2022 hearings for the Children’s Amendment Bill, South African civil society painted a bleak picture of unsafe abandonment in the country, and petitioned Parliament to include clauses into the Bill to allow safe relinquishment.
Its submissions included detailed changes to the wording of the Children’s Act and consequential amendments which would legalise the use of baby savers provided the baby was under one and showed no signs of abuse or neglect.
In the Gauteng hearings on the bill, the chairperson of the portfolio committee for social development who, along with many of her colleagues, was visibly moved by the stories of abandoned children who died or were maimed through unsafe abandonment, asked activists “to stop telling these sad stories, they are touching, I’m telling you”.
She and the committee then invited Dr Rosenberg to present on proposed safe relinquishment legislation in March 2022.
Within months, however, the committee had decided to reject most of the clauses in the Bill to focus exclusively on foster care. All discussions about safe relinquishment were also shelved, and despite commitments that the remainder of the clauses would become a committee bill, nine months later and the bill is yet to reappear on the committee’s agenda.
Even if Parliament does reopen discussions about ending unsafe abandonment, it probably won’t get any support from government.
Unlike Namibia, neither the executive, nor the ANC woman’s or youth leagues have made statements about the crisis of child abandonment or the need to save lives. Nor has it ever been on an agenda during Child Protection Week or the 16 Days of Activism for no violence against women and children.
Baby murder rate
This is despite South Africa reportedly having among 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).
The same Medical Research Council study found that children under 5 in South Africa were most likely to die of unnatural causes during the first six days of life as a result of unsafe abandonment.
Nevertheless, the Department of Social Development responded to questions posed by the committee in March 2022 about ending unsafe abandonment by stating that legalising life-saving interventions would be unconstitutional:
“The Children’s Amendment Bill did not make provision for safe abandonment of children nor does it seek to decriminalise safe abandonment. The matter arose as part of the public hearings. If it has to be considered; such consideration will be unconstitutional as it will be in contravention of Section 28 of the Constitution. According to the Constitution of the Republic; children must be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse and degradation which are also reiterated in the definition of care in the Principal Act (Children’s Act 38/2005) where a child must be protected from maltreatment, abuse, neglect, degradation, exploitation and any other physical, emotional or moral harm and hazards. Therefore decriminalisation of abandonment will continue to put children’s lives [at risk].”
In her presentation to the committee, Rosenberg countered this argument emphasising (as the Namibian government did) that the child’s constitutional right to life and dignity should trump all other rights, and further, per Section 28(2) of the constitution, that the best interests of the child are paramount in all decisions regarding the child.
She also refuted the department’s claim that legalising safe relinquishment amounts to legalising abandonment. Unsafe abandonment, which epitomises the maltreatment, neglect, abuse and degradation that the department wants to prevent, would remain a criminal offence. If however the mother could not raise the child and was not able to place it into the child protection system, her act of safely relinquishing the child into an accredited baby saver would no longer be a crime.
Legalising safe relinquishment is thus designed, wherever possible, to stop unsafe abandonment which could result in disfigurement and psychological harm, or death.
Where Rosenberg and the DSD do agree is about the need to prevent abandonment.
According to the department, its position is to strengthen prevention and early intervention programmes to identify and support pregnant mothers and inform them of “alternatives to abandonment such as termination of pregnancy, giving a child up for adoption or placing a child in alternative care (foster care or child and youth care centres). Early identification of mother at risk upon delivery of the baby must be done and such mothers assessed for appropriate referrals and immediate counselling upon giving birth to avoid abandonment of babies. Communities at large must also be educated about dangers of abandonment and support required by mothers of newborn babies.”
Whilst concurring that prevention is critical to saving lives, activists contend that while the circumstances driving abandonment exist, such as poverty, unemployment, gender-based violence, patriarchy, rampant teen pregnancies, and the restrictive legislation that prevents under 18s and foreigners from placing their children into the child protection system, abandonment will never be eliminated.
They further argue that, across all levels, government has proved very poor at the early identification of at-risk women, providing counselling and support, and assisting mothers to exercise options other than raising their child. And, they argue, the situation has become worse over the last year since the department made this policy statement.
The failure is painfully illustrated by the stories of four mothers from four provinces, all experiencing a crisis pregnancy and trying to seek help.
In October 2022, a 23-year-old mother from Veralum, KwaZulu Natal abandoned her three-month-old baby girl next to a stream. Her baby was clothed, and she was left with a nappy bag containing nappies, a dummy and a bottle of milk, along with a note explain why her mother abandoned her:
“Hi, You might be wondering why I dumped my baby, don’t wonder, just help her if you can or call authorities but don’t judge me. I have spoken twice with social workers they delaying to assist. I know this looks bad but I had no option. The system is fragile and we can’t even abort safely anymore. Hospitals have strict rules.” (sic)
Despite the child being in good health when found, her mother was arrested for child abandonment after she handed herself in to police following a furore that erupted on social media. She was charged and released on R500 bail.
In response, the KwaZulu-Natal MEC of social development Nonhlanhla Khoza, who cited the Veralum child’s story with two others in which babies narrowly survived unsafe abandonment: one where a newborn baby boy was left to drown in a pit latrine in northern KwaZulu-Natal, and another, in Newcastle, where a child was thrown out of a hospital window, said that it “was devastating to see such despicable incidents of dumping of children”.
The MEC then insisted that mothers have “a lot of options” when facing a crisis pregnancy: “We encourage parents who are unable to care for their children to seek help at a clinic, hospital or the department. We have a lot of options made available by our government to ensure that we safeguard the children and we want to urge parents not to resort to dumping children regardless of situations they face.”
She painstakingly detailed the process that authorities follow. A clinic refers a mom to a social worker, options counselling occurs, a safety and risk assessment is conducted for the child, followed by the child’s removal to temporary safe care in a family or child and youth care centre. Finally, a care plan for reunification is developed. Urging mothers to approach the department if they are in crisis, she threatened that abandoning mothers would “face the might of the law”.
It sounds constructive, except that the MEC was patently ignoring the mother’s protest that the system doesn’t work. It’s a depressingly common narrative.
In the Western Cape, Amanda Jones, a volunteer from the Helderberg, Baby Saver, had to threaten the Department Of Social Development with charges of culpable homicide if they did not allocate a social worker to a mother experiencing a crisis pregnancy who was at high risk of abandoning her baby.
Aphiwe* was adamant she did not want her baby. She told Jones that she was revolted by the child moving in her womb. She had tried to abort her baby three times over the course of the pregnancy, the final time at 37 weeks when she again failed, but her attempt resulted in an infection. Yet. at 39 weeks, regardless of the danger, she was still talking about trying to abort her child a fourth time.
The baby’s father told her he didn’t care what happened to the baby, and it was her problem. He threatened to block her if she kept contacting him.
When Aphiwe eventually went to the local clinic in her third trimester, she described being “chased away” by the nursing sister who told her that they didn’t have time for people like her who didn’t know what they wanted, and came so late in the pregnancy to get care. Aphiwe then sought help from a local GP who diagnosed a serious infection from the failed late-term abortion. He gave her medication, but although he said that the infection could be life threatening for the baby, did not book her into hospital.
After weeks of trying to get help for Aphiwe and her baby, it took Jones’s email begging the department to intervene and threatening to press charges if anything happened to Aphiwe’s baby, for it to get a child welfare social worker allocated to her case to help her book into hospital and place her baby into the child protection system.
Jones specifically requested that Aphiwe’s file contain a note stating that the hospital should not give the baby to her mother post-birth because she was at high risk for harming the child.
Despite this, in Aphiwe’s words, the child welfare social worker assigned to her case told her that, “I should not give the baby up for adoption because it’s going to haunt me for the rest of my life… If I do, I will never have peace and nothing will ever go according [to plan] with my life.”
The social worker then told her she may be bewitched and should visit her church for help.
Further, despite Aphiwe’s hospital admittance form stating the baby was to be adopted and the clear message given to the social worker that she may hurt her child, Aphiwe’s baby girl was handed to her after she was born. Aphiwe was placed on a chair outside the delivery room and instructed to breastfeed her child before they would allocate her a bed for her post-birth recovery.
Had she been discharged with her daughter, Aphiwe’s baby may have become another heartbreaking abandonment statistic or story. Mercifully though, Jones, dismayed at the child welfare social worker’s approach to the case, obtained help from another child protection organisation that removed the child. Aphiwe’s baby is now in the loving care of a temporary safe care parent.
The outcome could have been very different. In another troublingly similar story, a mother in Gauteng who also did not want her child was forced to breastfeed and care for her newborn in hospital for three days while the hospital blocked efforts from the temporary safe care parent to collect him. This was despite the mother also being deemed high risk for abandonment.
The safety parent’s relief at finally being handed the baby boy was short-lived. A medical checkup shortly after Thando* was placed in her care showed that the baby had a fractured skull.
The hospital’s insistence that his mother parent him almost cost Thando his life.
Shortly after the Veralum mom’s arrest for child abandonment, another safety parent, this time in the Eastern Cape, sat in a car with a young mother who had just confessed to abandoning her newborn daughter. The story of a baby girl left behind a fast-food restaurant at night had made it into the media in their hometown and Lorraine* had read it with dismay. She knew immediately that she had spoken to the abandoning mommy a week before.
During their discussion, Nkululeko* had told Lorraine that she had hidden her pregnancy and didn’t want anyone to know about the new baby. She was adamant that she would neither identify the birth father nor raise the child.
Lorraine is not a statutory social worker and cannot take a child into the child protection system. She therefore referred the mom to the local DSD, warning them that Nkululeko was terrified of anyone finding out about the pregnancy and that they should not ask questions until they had her baby in temporary safe care. Heedless, the DSD social workers pushed for details about Nkululeko, her family and the birth father. They then told Lorraine that she had disappeared and would no longer answer their calls.
The day after the referral, news broke that a baby girl had been abandoned the night before.
Although Nkululeko’s baby survived, Lorraine was appalled. Not only had Nkululeko felt she had no option but to abandon her baby after getting assistance from the DSD, but Lorraine knew she had to counsel her to turn herself in to police.
Nkululeko was arrested and charged with abandonment.
There is a small glimmer of hope in this story. At court, Nkululeko was released on her own recognisance, and after counselling, was reunited with her daughter who she has chosen to raise.
But she still faces criminal charges. She is back in court this month to see what the penalty will be for her crime.
All four stories have a common link, the singular lack of assistance for women experiencing a crisis pregnancy from hospitals, government social workers and the DSD. Without the intervention of volunteers and temporary safety parents, these babies could have died or been permanently estranged from their birth families.
The stories belie the MEC’s promise that birth mothers have a lot of options. Conversely, they show that government interventions often drive mothers to abandonment rather than preventing it.
And despite the promises and her threats, unsafe abandonment continues unabated, especially in KwaZulu Natal.
In January 2023, another baby was abandoned about 15km from where the Veralum baby was found in Phoenix, this time on the side of a highway, wrapped in a plastic bag. Babies were also found on an electrical box in Margate, outside a house, also in Margate, in a construction site in Port Shepstone, and at a clinic in Durban.
Nadene Grabham from Baby Savers SA says that in January and the first two days of February alone, there were 10 media reports of babies abandoned unsafely. Half of the babies were found dead: in stormwater drains, on dumping sites and on the street wrapped in plastic bags.
Although all forms of abandonment, including safe relinquishment, are still illegal in South Africa, Grabham says that 12 babies have been safely relinquished into baby savers so far this year. All survived and were immediately placed into the child protection system.
It’s hard to argue that there is no crisis. It is even harder to argue that government interventions are sufficient to end unsafe abandonment. It’s hardest to argue that it would be unconstitutional to pass legislation that saves the lives of unwanted babies and prevents the physical and psychological trauma of unsafe abandonment.
Bottom line is that safe relinquishment saves lives. But perhaps, as statistics and anecdotal evidence show, in South Africa, unlike Namibia, these little lives just aren’t that valuable.
*Names changed to protect their identities.
This article was first published in the Daily Maverick: 26.02.2023
To cite please use the author’s name, the year of publication, the title of the article, name of publication (Daily Maverick), date of publication.
The 16 Days of Activism is a palpable reminder of the horrible human cost of violence against children. But as we admit failure in ending violence through policing and the criminal justice system, underfunded prevention programmes are quietly changing communities and saving lives.
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Every 16 Days of Activism, the media is awash with the heartbreaking stories of children whose lives have been changed by violence. According to Police Minister Bheki Cele, 558 children were killed in the six months between April and September 2022. In the three months between July and September, there were 294 attempted murders of children reported and 1,895 grievous bodily harm cases involving children.
Sobering as these stats are, we cannot fully appreciate the impact of violence without insight into the loss in human capital due to experiences of violence during childhood.
The World Bank Human Capital Index (HCI) measures the productivity and human capital potential of each child in the country given optimal health and education conditions. It captures the expected potential of children given the conditions in their country. On this measure, if a child born in South Africa today completed their education and had full health, they would only reach 43% of their potential productivity as an adult.
In 2015, a study by Save the Children South Africa estimated that this loss of human capital equated to roughly R238-billion (about 6% of 2015 GDP), “double what we are currently spending on the criminal justice system annually, and more than 10 times the cost of gender-based violence”.
According to an Institute of Security Studies policy brief in 2017, children who experience neglect and abuse, or witness violence, are at increased risk of negative health and behavioural outcomes, and of perpetrating violence.
Using data from the Birth to Thirty (Bt30) cohort study and the adverse childhood experience framework, researcher Sara Naicker found that violence represents a threat to development throughout the life course. Children exposed to a range of adversity in their homes and communities, including physical, emotional and sexual abuse, chronic unemployment, household substance abuse, community violence, and parent or household death, are likely to experience poor health and well-being as adults, an increase in harmful risky behaviours and reduced human capital.
The study confirmed that early adversity was linked to poorer health, well-being and social outcomes in young adulthood, and that the more adversities a child experienced, the greater their risk of suffering negative physical and mental health and social outcomes including criminality, psychological distress, incomplete schooling, illness, poverty and unemployment.
Disturbingly, 87% of the Birth to Thirty cohort had experienced exposure to at least four adverse childhood experiences by the age of 18.
While all adversities caused harm, the research found a particularly strong link between violence and poor outcomes. Physical abuse in childhood increased the likelihood of a child dropping out of school, being unemployed and experiencing social isolation, while exposure to community violence led to increased substance abuse and psychological distress as adults.
Bt30 data show that “in a single generation, just 28 years, children subjected to high levels of adversity and widespread violence were more likely to drop out of school, be unemployed, engage in crime, have mental health problems, be socially isolated and have poorer health”.
Naicker explains that “at the age of six, young children in the cohort who were exposed to high levels of community danger and intimate partner violence within the home were displaying symptoms of anxiety, depression, aggression and poor emotional adjustment, such as oppositional behaviour, or patterns of deviant and hostile behaviour and impairment of social relationships”. This exposure to violence was amplified in adolescence and young adulthood, especially among young women.
For this reason, preventing children from being subject to serious and persistent adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) is important for building human capital and promoting human development.
What is being done?
Given that intervening to prevent violent crime (especially interpersonal violence) and break entrenched cycles of violence is essential for growing the economy and improving the nation’s health, behavioural and social outcomes, and given the significant impact of violence on children’s mental health and development, what is being done to combat violence against children?
According to the ISS policy paper, in 2017, South Africa was spending R126.71-billion (9.68% of expenditure) on the criminal justice system and R45-billion on private security. But despite this, it reported “no apparent correlation between spending more on the criminal justice system, increasing the number of police, and a reduction in crime rates”.
By contrast, in the same year, the country spent just R9-billion (less than 1% of the Department of Social Development’s national and provincial budget) on violence prevention or early intervention.
This is despite the link established by the Save the Children study between preventing children from witnessing and experiencing violence, and ensuring that they have a good start in life, with building an inclusive economy in the medium to long term and growth in GDP:
“Not investing sufficiently in preventing… violence against children contributes significantly and directly to lowered human capital, which severely impinges on our country’s economy. That is because children who experience neglect and abuse, or who witness violence, are likely to go on to repeat the cycle of deprivation and disadvantage. This is exacerbated by exposure to violence in the home, stressed parents, harsh corporal punishment at school and at home, and bullying at school. Together this creates a toxic mix that massively reduces human potential and lays the basis for continuing cycles of violence.”
According to Naicker, the country’s Violence Prevention Forum, which consists of research institutions, government departments and non-governmental organisations, recommends the adoption of the following violence prevention definition into approaches for development across all social, health and economic policies and practices:
“Violence prevention is the whole of society working deliberately and sustainably to remove sources of harm and inequality, and heal woundedness, by intentionally growing an ethic of mutual care and inclusion to build peace.”
But the government places the onus for violence prevention on NGOs which are notoriously erratically funded, making it hard to quantify how much money is being spent on these initiatives.
Nevertheless, many are making a significant impact in their communities and families, most notably the South African Parenting Programme Implementers Network (Sappin). A network of 12 core non-profit (NPO) members with shared values of collaboration, ethical and cultural sensitivity and support for staff, Sappin runs many research-based parenting programmes across the country to foster secure and non-violent home environments for children.
One such project is at Touwsranten near Wilderness in the Western Cape, an eight-year community intervention run by Sappin’s Seven Passes Initiative, the Institute of Security Studies and the UCT Psychology Department between 2012 and 2020.
Touwsranten is a rural community comprising 762 households and about 2,245 inhabitants. According to 2011 census data, almost half of the adults in the community were unemployed, not economically active or discouraged work seekers. Just nine residents had more than a matric certificate. In 2016, only 20% of residents weren’t receiving one or more government grant.
A 2013 survey found that 60% of families described running out of money to buy food four or more times in the past month.
It also reported that 12.7% of the children aged six to 18 suffered from anxiety or depression which should have been receiving treatment, and 15.3% of the children of the same age experienced behavioural problems that needed treatment. Parents’ inconsistent discipline and use of spanking and slapping were strongly related to children’s behavioural problems, and to their anxiety and depression.
A third of parents who had a partner described experiencing intimate partner violence and one-fifth of parents reported such high levels of parenting stress that they were classified as being at risk of child abuse.
Surveyed parents identified unemployment, illicit drugs, particularly methamphetamine (tik), public drinking, petty crime and a lack of recreational facilities as factors negatively impacting the safety of children. They noted that physical and verbal abuse, bullying and neglect of children were common.
The environment in this community was typical of many others in South Africa, with parents “stressed and disempowered by the very difficult socioeconomic circumstances in which they raise their children and the compounded effects of racialised intergenerational trauma and poverty”. Further, in Touwsranten, as is common across South Africa, violence in the home and community was undermining the safety and happiness of its children.
The longitudinal intervention which aimed to show that it’s possible to develop and support “positive, non-violent parenting skills that help parents keep their children safe in and outside the home, and reduce parenting stress”, consisted of four parenting programmes. These were designed to increase positive parenting, reduce corporal punishment and provide parents with social support.
The goal was improved parent mental health, reduced parenting stress, and better communication and relationships between caregivers and children. It also consisted of several community initiatives to clean up the community, fix play areas and infrastructure for children and encourage accountability for positive parenting choices.
Evaluation of the programmes found that an optimal return on investment for parenting programmes was impossible unless material conditions changed for parents, and there were reductions in intimate partner violence, substance abuse and mental health problems.
Nevertheless, the programme, attended by one-fifth of parents over its duration, resulted in decreases in parenting stress and in both children’s externalising behaviours (through which the child makes their distress visible to others such as fighting or stealing or related conduct problems) and internalising behaviours (when a child’s distress is kept internal and may manifest as anxiety and depression).
Behavioural problems among younger children decreased by 33%. It also saw a reduction in the use of corporal punishment, an increase in positive parenting (even among those who did not attend a programme), and a slight improvement in parents’ mental health.
Moreover, changes at family level were evident in Touwsranten. The Smit family* entered a parenting programme for teens shortly after their sons were returned to them eight years after they were removed and placed in foster care due to the parents’ abuse of alcohol. The family was reunited because one of the boys had begun using drugs and the foster family no longer wanted to foster them.
These factors created a high-risk environment, making intervention critical. The programme gave them the skills as a family to handle difficult relationships in the family and cope with stress.
The intervention helped the father, Dan*, to control his anger and become calmer. He started fishing with the boys, cooking for them and cleaning the garden together. The boys responded by praising their dad. Their mom, Marie*, the breadwinner, began to spend more time with her sons and praise them for their positive behaviour. The family now love talking and doing activities together.
In KwaZulu-Natal, the NGO Give a Child a Family tells the story of two little girls, Sindi and Thembi*, who were placed in their care after being removed from their mother. When the organisation’s social worker met their mom, Bongi Thola*, to try to assist her to be reunified with her daughters, she confessed to feeling like she had nothing to give her girls. She was struggling to make ends meet, lived in a tiny home and her boyfriend had no interest in her children. She had lost hope of having her daughters returned.
The social worker offered her assistance, inviting her to a parenting skills programme. Bongi initially declined, but within a week she had changed her mind. She broke up with her boyfriend and joined the course. To the children’s delight, they were returned to her soon thereafter with supervision and follow-up meetings.
Six months later, the social worker was visiting Sindi and Thembi’s school when she was hailed by the principal. “What have you done with Mrs Thola?” he asked. “She has found her voice. She is talking to the other parents and telling them to get involved with their homework and school activities, she is telling the parents how to discipline their children.”
The course she attended convinced Bongi that money, or the lack thereof, was not significant. She learnt the importance of connecting with her children and how being an adult who is crazy about them helps them thrive.
Nor is it just at-risk children who have been placed in statutory services whose lives can be changed by parenting interventions. The Seven Passes Initiative tells many stories about families in Touwsranten where the programmes came in time to help parents deal with stress, anger and risky behaviours, saving the children from the adverse impact of poor parenting.
Its mom and baby parenting programme transformed a teenager’s experience of motherhood. Teenage moms experiencing a crisis pregnancy may abandon, neglect or abuse their baby. Tami* was a 15-year-old mom who was not interested in her baby or parenting the child. With the help of Tami’s mom, the parenting facilitator who ran the programme supported her to be able to go back to school and balance school with caring for her baby.
Violence a language of love
Dr Dee Blackie who runs Courage, a long-term community engagement change-management programme focused on prevention and early intervention in child protection, echoes Sappin’s concern that high levels of violence perpetrated against children in South Africa are exacerbated by people’s desire for quick fixes, instead of meaningful long-term approaches to behaviour change.
Courage workshops help communities envision the kind of world they would like to create for their children. They then identify the child protection challenges in their community, understand and prioritise these challenges, and develop empowered solutions to address them. Courage helps them understand the legal child protection and safeguarding process, identify community partners, and the values that will drive the achievement of their vision, and ultimately to create a community-based action plan.
Blackie tells a story from a workshop she ran in Alberton, Gauteng, about a young girl who spent the night out with her boyfriend. On her return, her father beat her so badly she ended up in hospital for a month. When social workers asked the father, who was imprisoned for the crime, why he did it, his response was, “because I love her”.
The programme helped the community understand that violence had become a language of love. It made them realise that especially among parents, they had to teach a new language of care and empathy to resolve conflict, instead of violence.
Similarly, in a workshop run with children in Diepsloot, a notoriously violent township in Johannesburg, a young man explained that he now had words to describe children’s daily reality. Violence was so normalised in his community that children weren’t aware that the violence perpetrated against them was problematic.
Prevention interventions allowed the community to finally “speak up” and advocate for change.
Policing is a much easier sell than prevention. But it is parenting programmes like those run by Sappin, and community mapping processes like Courage, that can minimise violence against children and child homicide. If care for individual children isn’t sufficiently motivating, the cost to the country and human capital of adverse childhood experiences, especially violence, should drive funds to prevention interventions.
As we pack up our 16 Days of Activism pins and posters for another year, and return to a lived experience where violence against children and its impact are routine and mostly invisible, we should require nothing less. DM
* Names changed to protect their privacy.
Article originally printed in the Daily Maverick 15.12.2022
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Four-year-old Bokgabo Poo’s horror rape, murder and dismemberment united government and communities in grief and fury. But in a country with under-reported statistics of three child murders a day, outrage on the part of authorities is a poor substitute for action.
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Little Bokgabo Poo was described as an outgoing, confident four-year-old with a big and engaging smile who loved her daddy. Her granny Lilian Poo believed that she had a bright future ahead of her.
“We saw a doctor, a teacher, a minister and a lot of good things [in her],” she said.
But on 11 October 2022, Bokgabo’s dismembered leg and arm were found in a shallow grave the day after she went missing while playing in a park in Wattville.
Piecing together eyewitness statements, CCTV footage and media accounts, a picture of her gruesome death appears.
In the late afternoon of 10 October, while her mother, Tsholofelo Poo, was at a community meeting, Bokgabo was playing in the park with a five-year-old friend when she was approached by a man.
Well-known in the community as someone who was always around children, and who had sweets and money in his school bag, he gave the boy she was playing with R2 to buy lollipops at the local tuckshop. He agreed eagerly. When he returned, Bokgabo and the man were both gone.
Bokgabo was never seen alive again, but CCTV footage captured at a tavern showed the four-year-old girl approaching a shop with Ntokozo Zikhali pictured close by.
Zikhali, self-titled “Harry Potter”, was out on bail for the rape of a nine-year-old at the time. Tragically, in the footage she was skipping happily alongside the man alleged to have raped, murdered and dismembered her shortly thereafter.
A week after Bokgabo’s death, The Sowetan published a front-page article titled, “How many more must die?” On it are the faces of 19 children, all murdered in the past four years.
Among them is six-year-old Bontle Mashiyane from Mganduzweni near Hazyview. When she, like Bokgabo, was raped, murdered and mutilated for muti in April 2022, she was the third child from her school, Sincobile Primary, to die in this way.
One of the four people arrested for Bontle’s rape and murder was out on parole at the time of her death. He was released in December 2021 after being convicted of murder in 2016, a murder he had committed while out on bail for the attempted murder of a teenager, a crime for which he was also convicted.
His co-accused and girlfriend confessed to the murder of four children, including her sister’s daughters Silindile and Ntokozo Sifunda, who lived in the same street as Bontle. This was after the community, acting on the accusation of a local traditional healer, had beaten and set alight a local pastor and his son for the Sifunda girls’ murders.
Also pictured are Mzwandile Zith, 5, Simphiwe Mgcina, 6, and eight-year-old Mpho Makondo, who were all kidnapped, suffocated and their faces smeared with a black substance by a tavern owner in Orange Farm in 2020, allegedly for muti to make her business succeed.
Thirteen-year-old Gabisile Shabane from Emalahleni is there too. A child with albinism, described as kind and caring by her twin sister, she was kidnapped in 2018, along with her 15-month-old nephew, Nkosikhona Ngwenya. Nkosikhona was taken by mistake (the abductors were targeting another child with albinism). When they realised their mistake, they threw him from a bridge. He drowned in the swamp below.
Gabisile was butchered while still alive and her skull, hands and private parts used to make muti to bring the perpetrators a life of wealth and riches.
There’s Siphiwe Sibeko, described as a sweet, respectful and bright 14-year-old who was gang-raped, stabbed and mutilated by her boyfriend and an older accomplice during level 5 lockdown while the men were high on dagga.
And Bandile Skosana, known for his smile and laughter. He was abducted, assaulted, stabbed 18 times and then crushed under a boulder in Bronkhorstspruit four days after his 4th birthday. He was buried in the Spiderman suit he was due to wear for his party. To date, no one has been arrested for his brutal killing.
Like Bandile, the deaths of five-year-old Lesley Dube and 10-year-old Katlego Joja, both of whom had autism and were non-verbal, have never been solved.
Lesley, described as a vibrant, smart boy who loved playing, went missing from his home in Bronkhorstspruit on 9 May 2021. His clothes and bones were found in a shallow grave four months later. Katlego, or Katli, as she was affectionately known, was found dead in a river three days after she went missing.
Covered in open wounds, raped, stabbed and hit with an axe, three-year-old Melania Ruben’s body was found in a bag at a dumpsite just six hours after she went missing from a neighbour’s house in Bela Bela.
In Limpopo in 2020, the Phasha siblings, Katlego, 9, Joyce, 7, and Tshepo, 5, were hacked to death and their three-year-old sister Adel was bludgeoned to death with a rock. A revenge killing against their mother, they were murdered by their father who had been convicted of murder and attempted murder in 2001.
In another revenge killing, Kamagelo Sitole was 10 when her mother’s ex-boyfriend, previously convicted of attempted rape, robbery with aggravating circumstances and housebreaking, kidnapped her from her primary school and then strangled her before hiding her body under his bed.
Two-year-old Thandeka Kubheka, the youngest victim on the cover and the only child to die in a gender-based violence murder, was also strangled, along with her mother Promise. The alleged perpetrator, Promise’s ex-boyfriend, is accused of killing them in front of his biological child, Thandeka’s five-month-old sibling.
The 19 child homicides highlighted in Sowetan reveal devastatingly common themes: child rape, homicide for the removal of body parts, murder as revenge against the child’s mother, the perpetrator being out on bail or on early release following a crime against a child, unsolved child homicides and the child knowing his or her perpetrator. All involve extreme violence.
Yet what makes these children unusual is not that they were murdered, but that their stories have been told. Most are not.
Official crime statistics show that an average of three to four children are murdered in South Africa every day. In addition, in the last quarter of 2021, 394 children survived attempted murder, and 2,048 children were victims of physical assault. The same statistics indicated that the child homicide rate has increased by 22.6% quarter to quarter.
As disturbing as these child murder statistics are, they are incomplete and inadequate. Findings from a 2009 study on child homicide completed by the Medical Research Council revealed that children under five are most likely to die of unnatural causes in the first six days of life as a result of unsafe abandonment.
The same study found that South Africa had among the highest reported rates of neonaticide (19.6 per 100,000 live births) and infanticide (28.4 per 100,000 live births).
However, in the last decade, child deaths resulting from unsafe abandonment have been inexplicably excluded from crime statistics, reinforcing a narrative that all abandoned babies found dead were stillborn and then abandoned, rather than murdered and then abandoned, or alive at the point of abandonment but then killed by exposure, drowning, suffocation, from predators, or as a result of illegal abortion medication.
If these deaths through abandonment were included, child homicides, currently twice the global average, would be even higher.
There’s also no separate category in crime statistics for muti murders, but although most go unreported, in 2003 a specialist police unit noted between 150 and 300 muti murders each year. Two reports completed by Mozambique’s Human Rights League and South Africa’s Childline confirmed that children are most likely to be targeted because they are more vulnerable — and because their body parts are thought to hold more power and luck in them.
Government’s research on child violence identifies interventions at individual, family, community and society level as four focal points for mitigating the risk of child homicide.
But, instead of implementing research-based solutions, when confronted with the horror of murdered children, government’s response is reminiscent of the ancient English practice of raising a “hue and cry”.
An early form of community policing, this noisy expression of public anger or disapproval was started when a crime was committed. The close community was required to raise the alarm and immediately work to find the perpetrator. It was effective, but by no means an act of altruism from all involved.
For many, the reason for joining the hue and cry was not justice, but because if you didn’t, you could be held answerable for the crime.
In South Africa, those responsible for policy that could prevent or reduce child homicide are often leading the hue and cry, either in their capacity as the executive or parliamentary oversight, or, in a clever sleight of hand, as their political parties, seemingly without any power to end the violence and acting as a lobby group, at times, against their own government.
Some common behaviours are evidenced from politicians when a child dies: party politicking and point-scoring, justifiable but ineffectual outrage, or crushing indifference.
Party politicking was particularly evident in both Bokgabo and Bontle’s deaths.
After the bail hearing of Bokgabo’s alleged murderer, EWN reporter, Kgomotso Modise, who followed the story, commented on how the ANC, EFF and ActionSA held briefings outside court, drawing attention away from the family. She also noted that the EFF was using the court appearance to hand out political pamphlets.
Similarly, at the trial of Bontle’s killers, EFF party members chanted Struggle songs outside the court as they called for justice for the murdered child.
There was also a strong ANC and EFF presence at Bontle’s funeral, where both parties condemned her killing.
Lydia Moroane from the ANC Women’s League told mourners: “We are angry as women and parents about these killings and we wish we could be there and deal with whoever is responsible for these murders. We can’t continue like this… where our children are killed like dogs.”
Mpumalanga provincial MEC for Sports, Culture and Recreation, Thandi Shongwe, who represented the premier, then said that the provincial government was shocked by the increase of muti killings in the province:
“We hope that the perpetrators are brought to book and face the might of the law and set a precedent. It’s really shocking that people are now kidnapping and killing innocent children in this gruesome manner. They are being killed for their body parts and this must stop, because we are now scared to even send our children to the store.”
While understandable, the wrath reinforces the collective perception that crime is the result of individual action, leaving authorities without responsibility or accountability for soaring child homicide rates.
It is easily done — the perpetrators in the child murders featured in Sowetan are almost stereotypically evil. The stories include paedophilia, greed, revenge, substance abuse, patriarchy, magic, repeated criminal actions and mass murder. It isn’t surprising that the community focus is entirely on the murderers.
But, tragically, after each perpetrator is imprisoned and the hue and cry subsides, so does the focus on solving child homicide. That is, until the next annual event like Child Protection Week or the 16 Days of Activism, or the next death.
The pattern of institutionalised indifference is oft repeated.
In 2017, when six-year-old Kutlwano Garesape was brutally murdered trying to stop his mother being raped, his devastating story earned one line in then Minister of Social Development and head of the ANC Women’s League, Bathabile Dlamini’s article on patriarchy.
Likewise, Bontle’s death was covered in a sentence in Minister of Women, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane’s statement expressing her indignation about the “relentless war against women and children”.
It is almost as if they weren’t the members of the executive tasked, along with the SAPS, with combatting the killings.
Frustratingly, with proper policies and budget, government could drastically minimise child homicide.
Key interventions include: a targeted strategic focus on violence against children (VAC) rather than it being subsumed into gender-based violence (GBV) interventions; an annual death review (including dead abandoned babies) to show how and why children are dying; active policing; increased numbers of social workers deployed across the country, and a functional child protection system to care for children if they are removed from their families.
Equally critical are an overhaul of conditions for bail, sentencing and parole for crimes against children, child-friendly victim support services, for government to fix the DNA backlog and properly manage the sex offender and child protection registers.
Raising the quantum of the Child Support Grant to the food poverty line would combat poverty and desperation-related violence. Also needed are the regulation of traditional healers, infrastructure upgrades and aftercare programmes to construct safe spaces for children to play; interventions to create community awareness about VAC, and family strengthening initiatives.
According to the MRC study, “The killing of children is the extreme part of a continuum of violence against children in South Africa. A prevention focus should be the priority.”
In the absence of disaggregated statistics, it recommends an annual child death review to both identify causes of death, suspected abuse and failures in the child protection system, and develop an early intervention system. A similar system in the UK consistently pinpoints modifiable factors in two-thirds of child deaths.
To obtain comprehensive statistics, child abandonment and muti murders both need to be included as a category of homicide.
To minimise child deaths immediately, government should legalise safe relinquishment. This would allow mothers to relinquish their children safely if they are unable to raise them or place them in the child protection system. It would also enable better policing and prosecution where the reason for unsafe abandonment is to kill the child.
Government can combat muti killings through investigation, regulation and education: investigating witchcraft-related violence, running education campaigns and enacting legislation regulating traditional healers are long overdue. Parliament has yet to enact related plans dating from 1995.
Further, government must address societal factors driving violence and child homicide including abject poverty, unemployment and overcrowding. Unicef recommends “socioeconomic packages and skills building to tackle poverty and unemployment”.
Following the October mini budget, the Children’s Institute criticised government’s R5.5-billion reduction in social grants, and its years of below-inflation quantum increases. This has resulted in the Child Support Grant, shown through multiple studies to alleviate poverty in the poorest women and children, falling to 72% of the official food poverty line.
In 2021, food poverty rates among children were the highest in a decade.
Poverty is particularly a key driver of maternal filicide in South Africa. According to Dr Shaheda Omar from Teddy Bear Clinic, this is frequently due to a multi-faceted lack of support structures. Mothers, she says, often struggle financially, lack coping mechanisms and don’t have access to resources to ask for help.
The MRC study showed that 71% of children under the age of five were killed by their mothers, and that mothers’ risk of perpetration was associated with “economic stress, unemployment, younger age, limited education, social isolation, mental illness, substance abuse, and being victims of intimate partner violence”.
While few studies explore the role men play in women killing their young children, “fear of abandonment by the male partner, lack of financial support, and having fragile relationships with the father have been reported”.
Patriarchy and GBV are also significant factors.
The National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence & Femicide (NSP GBVF) is a positive development in managing GBV. But civil society is concerned that the 10-year strategy doesn’t provide much practical detail on addressing VAC.
A child-rights-driven study of the plan by the Centre for Child Law confirmed that it had numerous VAC-related gaps; specifically that there is no clear definition of VAC or detail about where it fits in the plan or what funding, resources and responses it should receive. There’s also no examination of the drivers of VAC or acknowledgement of the importance of family and parenting programmes in managing it.
Child contributors to the South African National Child Rights Coalition’s complementary report regarding the Implementation of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child noted that GBV often overshadows VAC-specific issues, and that government needs to resource a command centre that specifically addresses VAC, and increase the budget for child protection services.
Unicef confirms this need to “identify concerns among children before they escalate”. It recommends increasing children’s access to psychological support services, specifically through training of teachers, child and youth care workers and social service professionals in risk identification and mitigation, and providing families with skills to manage and overcome stresses that can lead to violence.
Ultimately, an increase in social workers and a functioning child protection system are key to early intervention with at-risk children.
However, there are currently only 17,500 social workers providing social work services across the populaces’ life span. This is despite the National Development Plan’s prerequisite for 55,000 social workers, and the Children’s Act’s requirement for 70,000 social workers for children alone.
Equally, shortage of spaces in child and youth care centres, and a lack of foster and safety parents, means that even when abuse and neglect are identified, children often aren’t removed because there is nowhere to place them.
The MRC study found no social work services involved in the investigation of most child homicides.
It also noted that “police appear to assign low priority to child homicides, especially when very young children are involved.”
While “a police docket was opened for most abandoned neonates, no police investigation followed… cases had not been properly investigated, and only feeble attempts were made to hold someone responsible for deaths resulting from abuse and neglect”.
Not surprisingly, perpetrators were only convicted in 17% of child homicides of under fives. Police appear to assign low priority to child homicides, especially when very young children are involved
According to EWN’s Modise, in Wattville, community leaders bemoan the lack of a police station and active policing in an area where “things are so bad that a week barely goes by without the discovery of a dead body. And kids go missing, a lot”.
When Bokgabo’s mother realised she was missing, and community safety leaders blew the whistle calling for assistance, Bokgabo’s grandparents still had to travel to the nearest police station to report her missing.
It was the community who searched for the perpetrator, they who found him, and they who tried to get him to disclose where the remainder of the child’s body parts were.
Disgruntled leaders noted that the police presence was most noticeable when the SAPS prevented a protest march to Zikhali’s home by angry community members after he was apprehended.
The absence of visible and active policing, and police protection of perpetrators from community rage and vigilantism, are common themes in child homicide stories. The trial of Bontle’s alleged killers was moved and the media barred from taking photographs to protect the perpetrators from community retribution.
Tough questions must also be asked about child protection registers, DNA, and repeat offenders out on bail or parole.
Tshepi Mmekwa, Action Centre coordinator at Action Society, believes that Bokgabo’s atrocious death — and many of the other 548 children murdered in 2022 — can be attributed to “the DNA backlog, delay in taking DNA samples of convicted offenders and the non-existing National Register of Sex Offenders”.
The organisation plans to lobby to prevent those with a previous conviction or pending case of a sexual offence being released on bail.
Moreover, the impact of creating safer spaces for children shouldn’t be underestimated.
Children between the ages of eight and 18 interviewed for a Daily Maverick series on missing and trafficked children were asked for practical suggestions to prevent kidnapping, rape and homicide.
Along with better policing, they recommended that government fix broken infrastructure in schools, public toilets, playgrounds and parks so children can play safely. They also advocated for more aftercare and weekend programmes involving sport, culture and education to combat children being left alone, and to keep them off the streets.
Of all the MRC findings, the most staggering was that in child homicides, only 3.8% of perpetrators were strangers.
The implication is that almost all children knew their killer: they were murdered by parents, family or community members. While shocking, it also means that family strengthening and support, positive parenting and community awareness initiatives can have a huge effect.
Yet, there remains no coordinated plan for minimising child homicide.
It’s time for government accountability, for strategic policy interventions and for a child-rights-focussed budget. Without them, the outrage of authorities over the murder of Bokgabo and countless others is nothing more than another “hue and cry” designed to avoid both culpability and answerability for these tragic and horrifying deaths. DM
First published in the Daily Maverick: 23.11.22
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