The legacy of a children’s champion

Sibongile Mkhabela
Sibongile Mkhabela

This year the world joins South Africa in celebrating the centenary of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s birth.

Twenty-three years ago, when the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund was launched, the first democratic president said: “As we set about building a new South Africa, one of our highest priorities must be our children.

“The vision of a new society that guides us should already be manifest in the steps we take to address the wrongs done to our youth and to prepare for their future. Our actions and policies, and the institutions we create, should be eloquent with care, respect and love.”

Mandela acted on his words and donated a third of his presidential salary to start the fund which would change how children are treated and create a child-friendly society, sensitive to the voices of its youngest citizens.

Since then the fund has grown to be a significant role player in advocating the rights of children. It has created a network of hundreds of organisations that affects the lives of children every day and it has been part of interrogating public policy in the best interests of children, allowing for the voice of the child and youth in public discourse.

South Africa, although far ahead of most in its legislative and policy frameworks, seems to lack a clear implementation vision and commitment. We celebrate that we are among countries that are signatories to the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, but we mourn the fact that children remain unsafe in our streets, our homes and our country.

There was a time we thought our government had prioritised children, when the Mandela administration placed the rights of the child in the Office of the Presidency. However, we are now disheartened as children have been bundled back into the social development ministry – as if they were a social problem. Mandela was clear that children were a strategic focus for the country.

The fund has ensured that the voice of children and youth is heard by promoting leadership and excellence and fostering talented young people. The fund focuses on child survival and development in the first 1 000 days of life and ensures a safe environment in schools.

When he founded the fund, Mandela had identified a blind spot in our new democracy.

He spoke from his heart in voicing a vision for a dedicated children’s hospital – and challenged others to dig deep to ensure this dream became a reality.

Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital – opened just more than a year ago – has treated more than 1 000 patients, and stands tall as a living statue to the man and his legacy. But the children who flow in and out of the building every day are a symbol of hope; they are the future leaders of this continent.

Former president Nelson Mandela loved kids and they loved him. He did what he could to protect their rights. Picture: Kim Ludbrook / EPA

This year headlines have been centred on making universal and quality healthcare accessible for those South Africans – the majority – who lack access to these services.

When debated, this issue is framed often within the context of adults as patients, to the neglect of children who constitute a significant portion of our population.

We began to sow the seeds, to deal with some of the complex illnesses when we committed and finished building the hospital. Now, we must build lasting and sophisticated institutions that restore dignity and humanity to the children. We must start to position children and their wellbeing at the centre of social investment and, in line with the UN’s sustainable development goals, improve their chances of access to quality healthcare.

Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi recently emphasised the need to provide treatment to children who require critical care in the region: “The hospital deals with illnesses that other hospitals cannot cope with because they do not have capacity. It’s a super-specialist hospital; it’s also a centre of excellence where lots of research is going to be done,” Motsoaledi said.

This 200-bed facility is undoubtedly a national asset and has the potential to set the benchmark for universal and specialised paediatric healthcare in South Africa, academic excellence and the much-needed skills development in this sector.

Much like any demanding but worthwhile mission, an ambitious project of this magnitude requires continued commitment to ensure that its vision of promoting access to healthcare for children is realised.

The hospital offers a sustainable solution to ensure the future leaders of this world have a chance to live and thrive.

We invite South Africa and the international community to help us carry our worthwhile mission on this long but necessary journey.

Mkhabela is CEO of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital Trust

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