The recent spate of brutal child murders, especially in the Western Cape, did not necessarily reflect an escalation of these killings, but is indicative of the police’s under-reporting of the issue according to the University of Cape Town’s Children’s Institute.
This is the view of Shanaaz Matthews, director of the UCT’s Children’s Institute, in the wake of the recent slayings of 12-year-old Michaela Williams, Tazne van Wyk, 8, Sibusiso Dakuse, 12, and 7-year-old Regan Gertse.
The children’s deaths were widely condemned with distraught mothers afraid to allow children to play freely in areas plagued by endemic gun and gang violence.
Matthews said her research into the number of children murdered nationally found that there were an estimated 1,018 child murders nationally during 2009.
Comparing this, reported child murders by the SAPS for 2018/2019, showed that 1,014 children had been killed, an increase of 29%. Matthews said she was confident that SAPS were under-reporting child murders.
She added: “Based on my research in the Western Cape we are not seeing an increase in numbers of children murdered, but instead increased reporting of cases in the media and better classification of such cases by SAPS.
“Due to the lack of accurate numbers by SAPS, I am part of a team led by the South African Medical Research Council conducting a national study on a Female and Child Homicide Study to determine whether we are seeing an increase in brutality.”
She said media reports were placing the spotlight on particularly heinous crimes against children.
The murder of children was, she conceded, “a complex phenomenon” but underlined that children were often used as objects for gratification and killed with impunity as their lives were not valued.
“Children are viewed as easy targets but we also see that such murders often intersect other forms of family dysfunction of gender based violence,” she said.
Community activist Roegchanda Pascoe said one the reasons why men targeted children was because women had united against gender-based violence and that men saw this new form of resistance as a “threat”.
“In our communities men have real difficulty dealing with this pushback and therefore target innocent children who cannot fight back,” Pascoe said.
Director of Molo Songololo, Patrick Solomons underlined that children were more easily manipulated, groomed, taken, abused, raped and then killed, than adults.
The question of the sudden spike of murders elicited interesting responses from Matthews and Solomons.
According to Matthews, the Child Death Review Project, co-ordinated by the Children’s Institute and Forensic Pathology Services in the province, has shone a spotlight on the vulnerability of young children in their own home.
Matthhews explained: “The home is considered to be a safe space for children, yet we found at Salt River Mortuary alone at least 35 children were killed every year in their homes due to child abuse and neglect. In addition, we found that young children were most likely killed by someone known and often close to them.
“Although, the killing of a child due to abuse is not the result of a single factor, there are often early warning signs that can alert us to a family or parent in distress.”
Matthews said research had shown that both social welfare and health services were often not responsive to the needs of dysfunctional families, with devastating and often fatal consequences.
Solomons believes that various factors such as gang-related violence could hike the number of children murdered and killed in shootings and stabbings. However, these could include “revenge killings” or “children just getting in the way”.
Solomons reiterated that sexual assault, rape and mutilation of victims were seldom planned and were usually committed when the perpetrator found a window of opportunity, either when being left alone with the victim or by luring a victim to accompany them.
Matthews said that the “pathway” for some men or women to become child killers or abusers could be found in their own past.
“Men who have had childhood experiences of child abuse and other forms of trauma with substance abuse and gender inequitable values have been shown to increase men’s propensity to be violent towards intimate partners and children. My work with violent men has shown that these men can perform such violent acts without feelings due to being blunted emotionally,” she said.
Pascoe says men needed to be taught to talk about their emotional pain and trauma in order to break the cycle.
“This stigma of masculinity must be broken,” she added.
But Matthews pointed out that the current justice system was not geared towards rehabilitation, adding that most men in prison required psycho-therapeutic work to deal with their own past trauma and emotional vulnerabilities. DM
"Numbers constitute the only universal language." ~ Nathanael West