MAVERICK CITIZEN

Christina Nomdo, the Western Cape’s new ‘facilitator’ for children’s voices

By Biénne Huisman 17 June 2020

The Western Cape’s Commissioner for Children Christina Nomdo. (Photo: Government Information and Communication Services)

On 1 June 2020, Christina Nomdo assumed tenure as the Western Cape’s Commissioner for Children – the first position of its kind in South Africa. Her new job comes at a critical time amid concerns for children during the Covid-19 pandemic. Domestic abuse and child hunger during lockdown, missed schoolwork, and risk associated with pupils returning to classrooms on 8 June are some of the key issues.

Speaking to Maverick Citizen via Zoom, Nomdo stresses that she will not serve as a voice for children – as children should be allowed to speak for themselves. “One of the things I tell people is that I’m not a voice for children, children have their own voices,” she says. 

“I will be a facilitator to hear their voices. I can only talk about what children have confided in me. And that’s what I see my role to be: a bridge builder, a facilitator between children’s lived realities and government agendas.”  

Nomdo’s sentences are fiery. She is blunt and to the point, drawing on three decades of experience in the children’s sector. Her previous job was as a child rights specialist for the National Planning Commission (NPC). This capacity saw her travel around the country over four years, hosting workshops where children depicted their fears and challenges in letters, poems and hand-drawn pictures. For example, challenges revealed at a workshop at the Groot Drakenstein prison near Franschhoek included: unemployment, poverty, crime, drugs, gangsterism, “rights are on paper, they are not real”, household finances, housing, water, abortions and university affordability. 

While still working for the NPC, Nomdo pioneered a project discussing young people’s Covid-19 and lockdown fears. 

“I am aware that I take up this office at a very trying time,” she says. “Children gave us feedback about how they’re experiencing lockdown. So there was a whole panorama of feelings. A theme that came through strongly was ‘I miss my friends’. A six-year-old from Lavender Hill said: ‘I feel sad because I can’t go to school and play’; a 13-year-old from Langa agreed: ‘It’s sad not going to school’. They want to be reunited with their friends but do they know enough about the new normal of physical distancing? 

“Then there is the anxiety of losing a loved one to the pandemic. Many are also very concerned about their education, about whether they will ever be able to catch up on their schoolwork and what this will mean for their dreams and aspirations. So there are a lot of emotions children are experiencing right now; this is not just about physical realities but their emotional welfare, too.”  

Nomdo notes a push by some learners that the 2020 school year be entirely cancelled and deferred to 2021.  

“The representative council at Elsies River High School (in Cape Town) shared with me their anxieties about going to school, by sending me letters they wrote to the president,” she says. “Their view was that school should restart afresh in 2021, when it’s safe.” 

Nomdo points out a letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa written by 17-year-old Elsies River High School matriculant, Malikah Swail, which was shared on Facebook 6,400 times. 

Swail wrote: “I am writing to each and everyone in the education department and to the president, in extreme desperation as a concerned member of the youth of South Africa. I write this letter with tears in my eyes and a hopeful heart that it would actually be read and not just overlooked… I always thought the biggest stress I would endure during my matric year would be exams and the heavy workload, but I was wrong. Now the biggest stress I am facing is the fact that I need to return to school – DURING A PANDEMIC.” 

Gesturing with her hands, her brow furrowed, Nomdo concedes that violence against children – particularly during lockdown – is top of her mind. 

Nomdo grew up in Belhar, skirting Cape Town, where she matriculated at Belhar High School, landing her first job as a children’s librarian at the nearby Huguenot Square Library.  

“There’s a big concern about it,” she says. “I’ve worked with the issues of violence and abuse intensively. One cannot but get emotional listening to these stories; hearing what children are made to go through. Often I so wish it wasn’t necessary that they have these terrible experiences. 

“People must realise that the Child’s Commissioner won’t be a superhero or some magic wand. This position is not going to clear our slate for us. Unfortunately, there’s not going to be a quick fix. The science around violence prevention tells us we have to work ecologically; which means we have to make children’s homes safer, make communities safer, make our society safer. This means that we need interventions on all those levels. We need to challenge a lot of adult belief systems and adult behaviour, you know? We would need a whole process of social change.”  

Responding to concerns that the lift of the nationwide alcohol ban would spark an increase in domestic violence, Nomdo says: “This is a particular perspective. But I also speak with lobbyists and researchers who say that we cannot blame alcohol for abusive people’s choices. We must hold people responsible for their actions and choices, and their abuse of power, because that’s what violence is about, right? An abuse of power. There are many factors that can influence an increase in violence: access to alcohol, stress from not having a job, or not having an income. All those can be contributing factors, but the actual source of the problem is the abuse of power. And one cannot absolve that by just saying: ‘it’s the alcohol that made them do it.’ ” 

Did her passion for young people originate anywhere specific? Nomdo shrugs. “Children’s rights was something that just always grabbed me from when I was very young,” she says. “Working with children, working on youth development, it was very much a part of who I was.”   

Nomdo grew up in Belhar, skirting Cape Town, where she matriculated at Belhar High School, landing her first job as a children’s librarian at the nearby Huguenot Square Library.  

“This was in an area where children didn’t understand what libraries meant,” she says. “They didn’t know the value of books. It was great for me to be able to introduce them to a love of reading. We also had a toy-lending service – educational toys, building blocks, for example. These were not things people had the luxury to buy in the area where I grew up. So we enabled those kinds of resources to be available.” 

In her new job – a Chapter Nine institution – Nomdo will work with the Western Cape’s departments of education, social development, health, cultural affairs and sport, to research and report on children’s issues.

Raised in a tight-knit family, Nomdo taught her own two sons that it is okay to have feelings – that men are allowed to have emotions, too. She still has close ties to the Belhar High School Library, which hosts regular drives for books and boardgames, with extra-mural writing lessons, talks and play nights.  

Nomdo was formally introduced to child rights theory and practice in 2002, working as a policy analyst at Idasa (the Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa), and became director of the child rights non-profit organisation, RAPCAN (Resources Aimed at the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect), in 2009. She holds an MA degree from the University of Cape Town, where she is presently also completing a PhD in public law, focusing on children’s rights.  

However, she does not consider herself an academic. “No, I’m not an academic,” she says. “I can best be characterised as a practitioner. My academic studies are in support of good practice, evidence-based practice, or to hone skills in writing and reading, and so forth. I’m a practitioner first.”  

In her new job – a Chapter Nine institution – Nomdo will work with the Western Cape’s departments of education, social development, health, cultural affairs and sport, to research and report on children’s issues. She will have a central city office, but endeavours to be on the road most of the time: “As soon as these corona-times are over, I will more frequently be on the road in communities than in my office, I can guarantee you that.” 

She will facilitate youth engagement through a “Children Participating in Governance” model.  

“I co-developed this model like 15 years ago,” she says. “So actually you are teaching children how to be government monitors. And so I’ve already started to recruit a cohort of children from across the province – including children with disabilities, including children with difficult circumstances, like those incarcerated or children who have special vulnerabilities, like from the LGBT sector – to work with me as government monitors. We will work together to understand the systems and processes in government, and we will make an analysis which we will present to government.”  

She argues that positions similar to hers should be created across the country. 

“I think it’s important for us to have a Children’s Commissioner in every province and at a national level,” she says. “I think it’s imperative because I don’t think that we take children’s voices seriously enough. A large proportion of our population are children. Politicians love to use them as campaign instruments, but are we really listening to them? Are we really shaping childhoods for the future that we want in South Africa? I don’t think so.” DM/MC

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