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Three children are murdered every day in South Africa — we need action, not outrage

Three children are murdered every day in South Africa — we need action, not outrage
A South African boy, a resident of Manenberg, Cape Town, holds up a bullet casing he picked up from outside his home. (Photo: EPA / Nic Bothma)

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.

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. 

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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


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