OP-ED

How the Covid-19 crisis has affected SA’s children

By Robyn Wolfson Vorster & Talia-Jade Magnes 8 June 2020

Children mark their places by placing their lunch boxes and bowls in a road marked with social distancing lines. The food containers are placed under stones to prevent them from blowing away in the wind as they wait for food from the Masiphumelele Creative Hub feeding scheme run by Yandiswa Mazwana in Masiphumelele, Cape Town. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma)

A study published by the Children’s Institute for Child Protection Week showed that despite the crushing impact of the Covid-19 crisis on South Africa’s children, only 10% of news stories focus on children, and only 3% are narratives told in their own words. So how has the pandemic affected South Africa’s children? Full of sadness but also hope, these are their stories.

For this article, we asked children from a variety of provinces, races, social classes and ages, some in care and others staying with their families, about how their lives have changed since the pandemic hit in March. Where children were too young to answer in their own words, their stories have been written based on interviews conducted with their caregivers. 

While experiences were personal, some key themes emerged around relationships, loss, the impact of school closures, anxiety, safety concerns, hunger and fear. Even children from the most violent backgrounds were grateful for more time with immediate family, but most missed their school, teachers and friends. 

Many expressed anxiety that they wouldn’t get enough food to eat, and quite a few children who attended Early Childhood Development Centres (ECDs) prior to lockdown spoke about missing the meals that they had at school. Although several parents who had lost their jobs tried to keep it a secret from their families, children were often aware, and worried about the future. And interestingly, despite most understanding the risk of Covid-19, only a handful of the children seemed afraid of getting sick. 

Some of the children in care were thriving during lockdown because of the extra stimulation of homeschooling. But others described huge loss, especially those who had family outside of the Children’s Home who couldn’t visit. And the stalling of reunifications and adoptions because Department of Social Development employees weren’t working during Level 5, and in cases, have not resumed their tasks, led to a number being left in limbo. Too many entered care during this time through abandonment or because of abuse, while others were left at the mercy of their abusers. Tales of dread about being hurt or neglected underpinned numerous narratives. 

Lots of children spoke of being sad or angry or needing to comfort themselves and self-soothe, and mourned the loss of relationships, opportunities to learn, time and potential. And although some clung to the hope that everything would soon “go back to normal”, others realised that it wouldn’t be possible and expressed deep-seated fears about what the future will hold.

Kutlwano*

I am eight years old, I live in the township, and am a Grade one learner in the Strand in Western Cape. 

I stay in front of the TV all day. 

Sometimes I ask my mom if I can do some schoolwork.

When lockdown happened, I was so happy that we were not going to school because I don’t like to be awake early in the morning. 

But now I am sad.

I didn’t know it was going to be a lifetime.
I miss my friend Iva, playing football, and I miss my teacher too.
I really don’t like face masks. I struggle. It makes me feel very hot. 

I want to go to the Eastern Cape. I think it’s better that side and that we can be allowed to play outside. I want to go back to school so that I can meet my friend Iva, but I am worried Iva will think I have new friends now because we are not allowed to share toys anymore.

Nonkululeko*

I am nine months old. Before lockdown I lived with my mama in Johannesburg.

I am a clever girl. I’m little, but I can walk already.

I don’t remember being hurt but I have scars on my back. My mama said they would keep me safe from evil.

My mama had no money for food. 

Last month she packed my nappy bag with all my special things.

We went in a taxi, I liked the sounds.

My mama asked a nice lady in the queue outside the Spar to take care of me while she went shopping. 

The nice lady waited and waited, but my mama didn’t come back. 

After a long time, I missed my mama and started to cry.

The lady got scared and took me to the police station. The police drove me to a place where there were lots of babies. 

The aunties there were kind, but they put me in a room on my own, so I didn’t make the other babies sick.

That night, I cried and cried. No one could comfort me. I cried the next day too.

Eventually the aunties put me in a room with the other babies.

Now I am happy. But I miss my mama and wonder if she will come and find me.

Charmaine*

I am 11 years old. I live in Macassar in the Western Cape with my parents, two brothers (aged 7 and 4) and a baby sister who is one. 

I like to sing and watch TV.

I miss school a lot, that’s why I play school with myself. 

It’s safer at home because there are too many children in one classroom at school.

There are 59 children in my class at school. 

We must stay safe and wash our hands, but there is not enough soap and hand sanitiser.

I eat healthy for my body to stay strong. It’s hard though because no one can go to work.

Sometimes there is not enough food to eat to stay healthy. 

Macassar people did not receive any food parcels. I wish someone could help us with food.

Jonathan*

I turned 13 during lockdown. I live in Johannesburg with my parents and sister.

I like lockdown because it has given me lots of time with my family.

I play with my dad every day because he cannot go to work.

I miss seeing my grandparents, but worry that if I see them, I might make them sick.

I’m in Grade 7, it was going to be my special year. 

I’m a monitor and house captain, and this year, I was supposed to play a soccer tournament and wear a jersey with my name on it.

Now I’m afraid to go back to school because someone might get sick.

I don’t know if the children will be careful and worry about having to keep them safe.

I’m sad because I cannot take a ball to school to play with at break-time in case someone touches it.

Sometimes my lungs don’t work properly, and I battle to breathe.

I’d rather learn at home, but my mom says that the school might not send work.

It feels like my school year is over.

Natasha*

I am four years old.

I live in a small room with my mom.

I am often left alone for a whole day without any food or anyone to care for me.

Someone noticed me before lockdown, and told a social worker that my mom wasn’t looking after me.

But then lockdown happened, and the social worker wasn’t at work, so she didn’t come and check on me.

She told the lady who reported that I was alone that she couldn’t come to my home to check on me because it was too dangerous, and she might get sick.

Then, finally, the social workers did come this week, but they only spoke to my mom from the gate.

My mom told them everything was fine, so they went away.

Everything is not fine. 

Joseph*

I am 12 years old. 

I have been in the child protection system since I was eight months old. 

First, I was left at a Children’s Home, and then I was placed in foster care.

My foster mother died.

I missed her so much, and felt so angry to be moving again.

I was placed back in a Children’s Home, and then moved to another one.

Now I am almost a teenager.

Lockdown has been so hard for me. 

I feel isolated and alone, more than ever.

I am feeling really bad, I am angry all the time and it’s making me want to hurt myself and the people around me. 

I have been acting out, and now the home wants to move me again.

Because of lockdown, I can’t be admitted to a place that can care for my needs right now.

I am trapped, they don’t want me here, and things are just getting worse and worse. 

Enrico*

I am nine years old, I live in Macassar in the Western Cape.

It’s very boring at home and I miss school. 

I can’t go to the shops with my mom and grandma. 

I don’t like wearing the mask. 

I wish they can send us food parcels. 

The people bought all the food, so when my grandmother’s pension money comes there is no more food on shelves to buy.

Felicity*

I am 16 years old and in Grade 9 at my school.

I can’t remember living with my family. My social worker says that I have been in care my whole life.

I am struggling with my schoolwork. 

No one has time to listen to me at school, and I am afraid of getting left behind.

Lockdown has been good because I have had one-on-one time to learn which has helped me a lot.

The staff at the home are finding lockdown hard and are sometimes fearful and emotional. 

They try to hide it, but I can see.

I know when they are having difficulties, and it makes me feel scared and emotional too.

My therapy was stopped because of lockdown and I have been battling with my own feelings. 

I asked the social workers if I could go back to therapy and they agreed.

I hope it will make me feel less afraid and stressed.

Selma*

I am four years old. I live in Manenberg with my mommy.

My mommy lies in bed with me every day.

Mommy is not working anymore.

I am sad because I miss my friends, my teacher and my school.

I miss the park where I used to play with my friends. 

I miss my teacher’s food at school. 

Siya*

I am three years old.

More than a year ago a social worker took me away from my mom because she did some bad things to me. 

I have been living in a Children’s Home ever since. They are kind to me here, but I just want to live with a family.

It’s not the same living in a home.

A few months ago, my social worker found a family who wanted to look after me.

They visited me a lot before lockdown. I really enjoyed spending time with them.

I was supposed to move to them just before lockdown happened.

But they were waiting for a piece of paper from the government to say that they have not hurt any children before.

Then lockdown started.

My family couldn’t visit me anymore.

They still don’t have the form because the government was not issuing them during lockdown.

So now I have to stay here at the Children’s Home

All I want is a family, but I don’t know when I will be able to go home to them.

Gracie*

I am eight years old. I live with my family in Johannesburg.

I don’t like lockdown. 

I love my schoolwork, but I don’t like learning at home.

I miss my friends and my teacher.

My mom and dad have to work all the time.

I love to sing and dance. The other day I was singing a song that my music teacher wrote about the coronavirus.

I started to cry because I realised that even when we go back to school, I won’t be able to hug my friends or play with my teacher’s hair when she reads us a story.

When I feel stressed, I chew my fingers. Sometimes they bleed.

Some days I feel very angry that my life is not the same anymore.

I told my mom that I wanted to talk to the president and ask him if he knew what lockdown was doing to kids.

My mom said that the president was very busy, and very worried, so we couldn’t go.

But I want to talk to him, I don’t think he knows how hard it is for us.

Nkosi*

I am one month old.

I was born in a clinic in Johannesburg in April.

My mama lied on my clinic card. 

She left the hospital and took me with her.

She waited until the curfew started and it was already dark.

She put me in a hole next to the highway in Johannesburg. 

It was cold and noisy, and I was very scared.

I cried and cried.

No one was supposed to find me.

Then someone came at midnight, they shouldn’t have been there, but they found me.

The hospital checked me very carefully and said I was okay, I wasn’t too cold or sick.

The police took me to a place where the people are caring. They feed me and change my nappy and give me cuddles.

I wonder why my mama left me behind.

Tyrone*

I am five years old. I live in Retreat.

I want to go to creche because I miss my teachers and my friends. 

I miss all the things we do in school. 

I also miss going to my granny and my grampa and going to my family and my cousins.

Lockdown is making me sad 

It’s taking too long.

Thembi*

I am 13 years old.

One night, before lockdown, I was at home sleeping in my bed. 

I heard someone coming into my room.

It was my mother’s boyfriend.

Before I could do anything, he was on top of me.

He raped me. 

My mom heard me cry out.

She came to help me and called the police. 

My mother’s boyfriend was arrested, but they let him out on bail.

Because of the lockdown, the case will only go to court in August.

The man who raped me is not in jail.

I couldn’t get anyone to help me or talk to me because they weren’t allowed to help during Level 5 lockdown.

I feel very scared and sad. 

Linton*

I am 12 years old and live in a Children’s Home in Johannesburg.

I am in Grade 5 at school.

I have been in care since I was two years old. I can’t remember my life before I came to the home.

I like school in lockdown, all the YouTube videos make learning so exciting and I love learning about science.

I like everything to be perfect, and worry that I may be making mistakes in my schoolwork and that my teachers won’t like my work when I go back to school.

I miss my friends.

I like helping the smaller children at the home. 

I like being a big brother to the little ones and helping them cope with lockdown.

I even like feeding the babies in the home.

Retabile*

I am 17 years old. I live in Laudium.

The virus has affected me negatively. 

I cannot go to school. I’m left behind with my studies.

I cannot go to the park to watch the sunset.

I cannot live my ordinary life because of this lockdown.

We are locked down at home.

We just stay in the house doing nothing.

We cannot even have physical contact with our own family.

This virus is making me miss my opportunities.

I won’t have the same opportunities next year.

What is upsetting me is that no one knows if we will have to repeat the same class next year.

But I know that the time we have wasted will never be regained.

Sihle*

I am two years old.

I have been away from my mom since I was eight months old.

The social workers said my mom couldn’t take care of me. They wanted me to go to a new family.

The government said I could not be adopted and tried to give me back to my mom.

But the court said she wasn’t “fit” to take care of me so I couldn’t go and live with her again.

I feel like I am in the middle of a tug-of-war.

I am so angry because no one wants me. 

I kick and bite and hurt the other children at the home.

Then my aunty and uncle from Limpopo said that they would like to take care of me.

They are so kind. They came to visit me and gave me cuddles and sweets and told me they loved me.

They want me to go and live with them in Limpopo, but they need the government to approve it before I can go.

Then they stopped visiting. 

I was so sad, I thought that they also didn’t love me anymore.

The aunties say that it is lockdown and that they cannot travel, but I don’t know what that means.

All I know is that someone finally wanted me, but they can’t visit anymore, and I cannot go to them.

The aunties say that I can go to court in the middle of July to be reunified with them.

For me it feels like forever.

Tyrone*

I am nine years old. I live in Johannesburg and this year, I am in Grade 3.

I can’t remember a time before I lived in this Children’s Home.

I don’t know my mom or dad.

I love school, and my teacher told my house mother that I am her top student.

But I don’t like lockdown because I don’t like learning at home.

I can’t get used to it and sometimes feel bored and unstimulated.

I feel sad because I don’t want to do my schoolwork anymore. 

I miss school and especially my teachers and friends.

Sometimes I feel sad and can’t make myself feel better.

I used to suck my thumb when I was a little kid.

I didn’t for a long time, but now I’ve started sucking my thumb again.

I’m not a little kid anymore but it makes me feel better.

Micah*

I am 16 years old. I lived in Johannesburg with my family.

My two brothers, my sister, my mom, my dad, my niece, and I all lived together in a very small flat in town.

My father is a very big man. He can be very scary at times, and sometimes he is very abusive towards my mother, my brothers, and I. 

At the start of lockdown, he had a fight with my mother. 

He got very angry and hit her. I tried to protect my mother, and my father and I ended up fighting. 

He hit me, and threw me out the house. 

This fight was the worst we had ever experienced. 

My mother, my siblings, and I were very scared so we grabbed whatever things we could carry, and ran from the house. 

It was lockdown so we weren’t allowed to be outside, but we had nowhere to go where we could all be together

We had to go to different places. 

We slept wherever we could.

We were so relieved when people from an organisation we are a part of said they could help us.

They arranged for us all to go to a home for mothers and children. We have been staying here ever since. 

We are happy to be safe now, but we are far away from where we lived before. 

I feel isolated and removed from the life we had. 

I don’t know when I will see my friends again. 

I just want things to go back to normal.

Charmaine*

I am 11 years old. I live in the Gamtoos Valley.

There are many people living in my house, and it is very small. It is hard to be in the house all day.

It is not nice to have to sit at home all day, every day. But I have to.

Our school is not giving us anything to do during this time.

I long to be at school, especially learning maths. 

But I don’t long for the other children, who mostly fight each other all day.

No one in my neighbourhood cares about Covid-19. They all visit, party and mingle like usual, and don’t wear masks.

I am so worried that some people have no food and some people have no jobs.

Mpho*

I am 14 years old. I live in Laudium and am in Grade 8.

I understand why the president had to start the lockdown to protect people from the coronavirus.

Day after day people died. Others got infected, it was a real burden.

But lockdown has affected me in a negative way.

Children must go to school so they can learn and represent us well.

We want to see ourselves graduating one day.

I am a learner, but the schools are closed, so I have lost some knowledge because I am not getting taught by a teacher, but by myself. 

The churches have been closed so I couldn’t go to church.

I feel very sorry for those parents who had piece jobs. They cannot go to work because of lockdown so they cannot provide for their children.

Some families have nothing to eat.

But it has also forced people to stop damaging their bodies with alcohol and cigarettes.

It has made people stop spending their money on unnecessary things instead of food.

It has made families closer, and I think that people will not take God for granted now.

Justin*

I am seven years old, and I live in Johannesburg with my mom. 

It is only the two of us that live together.

Since lockdown, my school has been closed. I have been at home every day. 

I am healthy, but I am also HIV+. 

My mom has been so worried about me catching the virus. 

I haven’t been allowed to see any friends or family, or even go to the shops. 

I really like being around people, so I have found this very hard. 

Sometimes I get really angry about having to stay at home and I shout at my mom. 

I know she is trying her best, but I can’t help feeling cross.

I just want my old life back. 

Now that the rules are changing, my mom has started to go back to work. 

There is no one else in the house to look after me while she is at work, so sometimes she takes me to a neighbour’s house. She says that this isn’t really allowed, and that she is breaking the law, but she has no choice because she has to find work, and can’t leave me at home, alone. 

I hate this virus. 

I just want it to go away. DM

*All names changed to protect the children’s identities.

Robyn Wolfson Vorster is a dedicated wordsmith with a background in social sciences, learning and strategic consulting. She opted out of corporate life recently to become a children’s rights activist. As an adoptive mom to a beautiful daughter, she has a special interest in adoption advocacy, and she now uses her many words to educate about children’s issues and motivate for changes in policy. You can find her at www.becomingamom.co.za

A registered social worker, Talia-Jade Magnes has immersed herself among the migrant communities in Johannesburg. She is committed to the advocacy of human rights and to the protection of children.

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