South Africa at the beginning of 2016 is a country in deep introspection. And small wonder: in our context of endemic poverty and unemployment, the looming spectre of economic hardship, coupled with unpredictable politics and resultant social conflict, has affected people across all walks of life.
Against this backdrop, and in a climate in which many South Africans seem impervious to the horrors of child abuse and abandonment, three violent acts against children in the last two months have garnered unprecedented amounts of media and political attention (if somewhat briefly). Although far from isolated, the notoriety of these cases has made us stop and question. Alarmingly, what we find is that while personal in nature, the abuse, abandonment and murder of children are all inextricably linked to the societal factors defining our country. It begs two very important questions: When faced with fundamental social crises of this nature, why does our government so frequently respond on an advocacy level rather than a policy one? And, as the factors producing violence against children intensify, what can be done to save lives?
The joy was infectious. Mitchells Plain children in Grade R, eyes shining, smiles broad and gap-toothed, dressed in oversized uniforms, all being interviewed on the first day of school about what they want to be when they grow up. With the future looming large and inviting ahead of them, in typical five-year-old fashion their answers range whimsically from a policeman to a tiger, a doctor to a Ninja. Some are delighted to be there, others distraught. For all of their differences though, they have one thing in common: they are all alive. Seems obvious, but a 2009 Medical Research Council report suggested that in South Africa, children, in particular girls, are most at risk to die from abuse and violent crimes before the age of five. In a country experiencing appalling levels of violence against children, these children, about to turn six, have escaped a statistic. Others, sadly, were not so fortunate.
In the North West Province, a five-year-old girl went to bed at the end of 2015 dreaming (perhaps) of fireworks and sweets, or of school and what it would hold for her. She woke up wet, in a puddle of urine — an accident, maybe the result of too much juice at bedtime, or her mother forgetting to take her to the toilet before she went to bed, or anxiety, conceivably about her mother’s abusive boyfriend on whose couch she was sleeping. Tragically, it was the boyfriend who found her. Angry about the urine stain, he was merciless. He hit her again and again. Her “accident” cost her her life.
Watched by her 11-year-old sister and her mother (who tried unsuccessfully to intervene), she died violently, tied to the support structure of his house and beaten until her little life could stand it no more. She did not make it to 2016, she will never wear a uniform or go to school, she will not grow up to be a doctor, or a ninja. She was a life with promise, a life cut short, tragically, brutally, finally — all over a little “wee”. I don’t even know her name…
Her story was the first news story that I read in 2016. But it wasn’t long before she was joined by another, even smaller child, this time in Philippi, also beaten to death by a man trusted by her mother. This time her name is known, she was called Inganathi and she was seven months old. She died because she was hungry. She woke for a feed in the middle of the night, or more specifically, in the middle of a fight her mother was having with her ex-boyfriend. She rolled off the bed during the altercation and, enraged, he bashed her head against the wall, against the ceiling, against the pre-paid electricity meter, and stamped on her. Then he threw her across the room. She died in front of her seven-year-old sister, herself a child but the only one who tried to save her.
Inganathi was murdered in the same week as a malnourished 19-month-old girl in Johannesburg was placed in a plastic bag and thrown out of a moving car on to the side of a road. Little is known (or has been disclosed) about her circumstances so we are not certain why she was abandoned. But according to Luke Lamprecht, convener of the Shaken, Abused and Abandoned Baby Initiative, she was probably “fortunate” to have survived. Lamprecht says that in his experience, the outcome of abandonments usually depends on intent. When the abandoner intends the child to survive, they abandon them in a safe place and in a safe way (such as a baby safe or hospital). These babies are usually clothed and are sometimes left with a comfort item. Abandoners who choose to leave it up to fate, or the ancestors, often abandon unsafely, but not maliciously. Many of these children — who are left in toilets, dustbins or fields — die anyway; but some do survive. There is however another group of abandoners who abandon violently and with the intent to end the child’s life. In these cases, says Lamprecht, death is the most common outcome.
These stories are shocking, and need to be told. But this is a country with a child homicide rate more than double the global average as reported by the World Health Organisation. Of those, nearly half are due to child abuse and neglect (or as many as three-quarters for girls). In addition, thousands of children are abandoned annually, only about a third of whom survive. Most of these deaths and abandonments take place in secret, unnoticed (expect by the closest few) and unreported, which makes these three stories unusual and significant.
It is not every day, for example, that political parties condemn the death of a child, that nationwide searches are implemented for a child murderer, or that an abandoned child gets a public mention from the government (or any mention at all). The high-level condemnation for these acts is necessary and gratifying: they should absolutely be vilified and the message communicated by authorities that child abuse and murder will not be tolerated. In truth, however, reviling perpetrators such as these is an easy and sympathetic political position to take. Few would argue against the condemnation of a person who smashes a baby’s head against a wall, or places a toddler in a plastic bag and throws her out of a moving vehicle. And, although the “evil person” argument is compelling, and the individual agency is in these cases is clear, if the research is to be believed, blaming the perpetrators exclusively (while justified and satisfying), will not stop these events from continuing to happen. At best, the response therefore represents a missed opportunity on the part of authorities. At worst, it indicates denial and negligence that may border on being criminal.
Bottom line is that we know why these children are dying. The Medical Research Council investigation into child homicide in 2009 indicated that at the time, almost three South African children were dying daily. It highlighted three key areas of concern: abandoned babies, fatal child abuse and male teenage interpersonal violence. The report also presented a four tier model for understanding the epidemiology of child homicide. The model, which has also been used by the World Health Organisation, identifies risk factors at four levels: personal, relational or interpersonal, community and finally, societal. While it is useful to understand the personal factors (such as substance use and a history of abuse) and interpersonal factors (often related to poor relationship choices), it is the community and societal factors that should trouble us most. They include: poverty, unemployment, disempowerment, patriarchy, and cultural beliefs and practices that deny the rights of children or promote violence.
The insight that we should be looking beyond individual and relational problems to determine why violence occurs is not a new one. As far back as 1993, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation’s Graeme Simpson published a seminal study on the topic and linked socio-economic pressure and disempowerment to domestic violence (which was significant in the climate of the time):
“Individuals, feeling powerless or helpless in the face of dramatic social and economic upheaval, frequently symbolically reassert their power through violence in those dimensions of their lives in which they still feel they hold sway. This results in much aggression which, although social or political at root, is expressed through displaced violence within the family and in the home”.
For those who lived through the late Eighties and early Nineties, South Africa in 2016 is engendering an eerie sense of déjà vu. So, despite the findings being more than 20 years old, they are not only still relevant, but chilling.
It is worth noting that neither of these studies denies the role of the individual and relationships in creating risk factors for violence against children. Strategies to help intervene on a personal and interpersonal level are essential for families, and may even impact on broader communities. This advocacy role has traditionally been carried out by NGOs who have worked tirelessly over the years to prevent child abuse and murder. But the epidemiology studies show that the problem is multifaceted, and that mediating exclusively on the level of the offender or poor relationship choices is an insufficient response. To change behaviour significantly, we need appropriate policy as well as advocacy, and this is the government’s domain. But herein lies the problem, because when faced with these horrific child homicides, the government’s response was to condemn the actions, hold the hand of the grieving mother, organise counselling for the witnesses and urge the people involved (and the onlookers) to make better decisions. These were all necessary and useful advocacy responses; what was blatantly absent though was a policy reaction addressing the far more complex and obdurate influences at community and societal levels.
The headscratcher is why this level of response was not forthcoming. The government certainly cannot argue ignorance about the epidemiological factors — its own 2012 study of violence against children, in conjunction with Unicef, used the same four-tiered model. In addition, it could hardly maintain that these are isolated incidents. It is true that child homicide rates have dropped since the MRC study in 2009 but this is most likely because abandoned babies and children are no longer listed as homicides by the police or in the mortuaries. Any progress that we may be making in combatting abuse and gang-based murders is surely insignificant the moment we add the thousands of babies that die (intentionally or unintentionally) as a result of abandonment.
Concern about violence against children even prompted Parliament to convene a parliamentary committee on the topic in 2014 in which experts made it clear that child homicides are preventable and that we need to take responsibility for protecting children and developing an overall strategy to combat child murders. Yet, two years later, this strategy is still to be presented.
Realistically, despite being a life and death issue for so many in this country, solving pervasive problems of poverty, unemployment and disempowerment may be beyond the scope of current legislators. A recent statement by the president disparaging concerns about losses to the economy caused by his disastrous decision to fire Minister Nene is indicative of the level of denial about the problem. And although the new “tightening the belt” budget might potentially dig us out of the hole created by the excesses and ineptitude of the existing government (which has compounded massive historical disparities), it is unlikely to take on fundamental issues of poverty. But the complexity of the challenge cannot excuse a lack of action, because although growing the economy, providing jobs and redressing inequality are all essential for preventing child homicides in the long term, there are many other strategies that the government can use to combat this problem right now.
The initiation or support of national research (such as the MRC’s Child Death Review teams), education, addressing patriarchy and attitudes that deny the rights and humanity of children, and taking on the resurgent culture of violence, could all assist in preventing abuse-based deaths. Furthermore, it is in the area of child abandonment that the government could make the most significant change in the shortest time frame. In the week before this article was published, there were seven news stories about babies that were abandoned (that I am aware of, and many others that were not documented). All but one was found dead.
In South Africa at present, it is just a normal week. According to Lamprecht, in Gauteng alone, one abandoned baby is found alive every working day of the month. Mortuary statistics for the same province indicate that for every abandoned child found alive, two are found dead. While figures for the rest of the country are not available, there is every indication that abandonment is a national crisis.
In response, child protection advocates have been lobbying the government for years to counteract this form of child homicide by legalising and facilitating safe abandonment, providing crisis pregnancy counselling services across the country, actively promoting and publicising adoption, and changing the laws of consent. But again, these policy changes have not been forthcoming. So, why is that?
The stark reality is that advocacy sells, especially among an unsophisticated electorate in an election year. And the Social Development portfolio is famous for the “grand gesture”: the minister is known for rushing off to Brazil in 2013 to personally repatriate the children of South Africans jailed for drug offences, and for her hands-on intervention in a home where children were being abused the following year. But as essential as advocacy may be from a political and human perspective, as long as poverty and disempowerment continue, so will violence (both public and private), child homicide and abandonment. Given that policy development and application is the government’s sphere of influence, when faced with the mounting tally of small bodies, any other response is simply inadequate.
In the end, former President Nelson Mandela said it best in his 1993 Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech: “[A better society] will and must be measured by the happiness and welfare of the children, at once the most vulnerable citizens in any society and the greatest of our treasures.” Probably meant as an exhortation, it is in fact a ringing indictment. If that is our measurement, we will surely be found wanting. DM