Opinionista Helen Zille 14 August 2017

From the Inside: We all need to do something about child murders

One thing I know for sure: no government can substitute for the role of committed families and communities in protecting children. In the end, a culture of active, responsible citizenship is indispensable to building a functional society that cares for its most vulnerable members. And anyone who knows how we can achieve that has the key to South Africa’s future.

The government MUST DO something” is one of the most common public refrains in a democracy. For those of us who work “in government”, it is often very difficult to determine precisely what should be done, especially when it comes to seemingly intractable social problems. Action for action’s sake is not the answer. Action must be rational, sustainable, and have predictably beneficial outcomes.

A topical example of the difficulties of defining an appropriate government response to a crisis is the epidemic of child murders.

In 2016/17, at least 900 children were murdered throughout South Africa. Although the recorded incidence in the Western Cape is slightly higher than the rest of the country, child murders are by no means a uniquely provincial problem. They constitute a country-wide crisis.

Obviously, no government can sit idly by in such circumstances.

But what constitutes rational and effective action? And who should undertake it? This question may seem outrageous given the dangers faced by society’s most vulnerable members. But it is essential to think through the answers before embarking on a course of “action”.

The place to begin is with the facts. Police investigations of child murders in the Western Cape have shown that, in almost all cases, the murderer was well-known, and usually trusted by, the victim and their families. Perpetrators range from neighbours, landlords, lodgers, ex-boyfriends and even the fathers of the victims. Many perpetrators were under the influence of alcohol or drugs when they committed their crimes. Some acted out of revenge against a partner (or former partner).

Police have done well in investigating these cases, arresting the perpetrators and gathering the evidence required for courts to impose long prison terms, despite the fact that the wheels of justice grind very slowly through the courts.

But the real challenge, obviously, is to prevent these murders. Is it possible for police (or any other agency or individual) to prevent violence and murder between people who know each other and routinely interact during the course of a normal day?

This is a far more difficult question and any inquiry worth its salt would have to try to answer it.

Some NGOs in Cape Town believe that the crisis requires the establishment of a commission of inquiry into child murders in the province.

At least this would constitute “doing something”. I always welcome thoughtful social activism, so I agreed to meet them to hear their motivation.

The meeting was constructive. It ended with an agreement from me to identify an expert or experts to undertake an in-depth study of at least six recent child murders. The study would document what we know about each case, analyse them in detail, and use comparable international studies to recommend solutions.

The analysis would specifically address the question of whether a formal commission of inquiry could help to find additional information, or make new recommendations that could reduce the incidence of child murders.

I undertook to get this study going immediately, and, as a gesture of good faith, asked the NGOs to identify the six cases they believed might reveal the most significant information to guide future action. It was my distinct impression that they were eager to do so and accepted the proposal.

Why would this preliminary step be necessary? Why not move straight into a full-blown commission of inquiry?

I explained that setting up a formal commission of inquiry is a statutory process that takes a long time and costs a great deal of money. Of course, no expense should be spared to protect vulnerable children, but one has to be reasonably confident that the course of action is likely to take us closer to specific, evidence-based solutions. Otherwise it does nothing more than create an “action illusion”.

Over the course of eight years in office, the Western Cape Government has set up only one commission of inquiry, following a request to do so from the Women’s Legal Centre and other NGOs. It took months of preparatory work to meet the statutory requirements and frame the appropriate terms of reference.

The focus of the inquiry was the horrific increase in vigilante murders in Khayelitsha. Initial work had established that the primary reason for this phenomenon was the community’s lack of faith in the police to apprehend criminals. It was easier and more effective, to take the law into their own hands.

In this case it made sense to establish a commission. There were unanswered questions that a commission could help answer: why had relations with the police broken down? What, specifically, could be done to restore public confidence? What role did the province have in oversight of the police to ensure that the necessary corrective action was applied? Above all, a commission would have powers to subpoena witnesses to give evidence, including the police, who otherwise would have been under no obligation to co-operate with an inquiry (especially given the hostile stance to the commission adopted by the national Minister of Police).

The commission’s work stretched over 11 months and cost the province R13-million, but it was worth every cent. Commissioners Vusi Pikoli and Kate O’Regan produced precise proposals for government action, and we have implemented all those that fall within the province’s remit. The results have been excellent, and measurable, in the sharp decrease in vigilante murders. (I will write more about this in a future column.)

I would establish a similar commission into child murders without delay if we could frame precise questions that can be answered by further investigation through this specific method, (which includes powers of subpoena), and that will bring us closer to a lasting solution.

Running headlong into “action” before doing so, would amount to little more than posturing.

I left the NGO meeting with the distinct sense that we were all on the same page, and that they would identify the six cases that could provide the focus of the preliminary study.

They didn’t. Instead of continuing the productive interaction, they ran a publicity campaign, slating the provincial government and accusing me of refusing to establish a commission of inquiry, because it was “too expensive”. It was not for the first time that I was amazed at the wilful distortion of the facts. And it probably won’t be the last.

Some newspapers enthusiastically covered their groundless accusations and allegations.

Only then did I do some basic research into the NGOs involved. It was interesting to learn that none of the specialist child safety NGOs with which the province works, had joined the public campaign for a commission of inquiry. I can only assume it is because those who really understand the fraught challenge of improving child safety know there are better ways to advance this elusive goal than spending money on a commission of inquiry.

The Western Cape government, through the Department of Social Development, devotes R683-million to addressing the needs of children, families and victims of violence and crime. The scope of this work includes a network of 420 NGOs operating within a combination of ECD centres, Child & Youth Care Centres, and drop-in centres that provide critical child protection services.

Our net is cast wide across 36 social development local offices, six district offices, 61 Child & Youth Care Centres, 190 child protection organisations with service delivery offices across the province, and 16 Shelters for victims of abuse.

The budget for child protection in the Department of Social Development tops R1-billion if the full operational requirements of these services are factored in, including the salaries of 1,510 social workers. There are 35,000 children under the department’s watch in alternative care placements, and a further 80,000 children in 1,100 ECDs funded by the department. All of this excludes expenditure on child safety, for example, through the Department of Education, Community Safety and others.

Could we be spending this money more effectively? And specifically, is there anything more we can do to prevent child murders?

I will now convene a meeting of stakeholders who are actively involved in child safety issues, and discuss these questions with them.

I will also seek their response to my proposal for an in-depth expert study into six child murder cases, to inform a decision on the efficacy and appropriateness of establishing a formal commission of inquiry – or whether there are other, more effective steps the provincial government can take within its constitutional mandate, to help prevent child murders.

But one thing I know for sure: no government can substitute for the role of committed families and communities in protecting children. In the end, a culture of active, responsible citizenship is indispensable to building a functional society that cares for its most vulnerable members.

And anyone who knows how we can achieve that, has the key to South Africa’s future. DM

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