OPINION | Mark Tomlinson: The subtle failure in our approach to child protection

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In 2021, almost four children were murdered every day in South Africa, writes the author.
In 2021, almost four children were murdered every day in South Africa, writes the author.

We have become deadened to the daily horror stories about child abuse and child murder in a quite profound way, writes Mark Tomlinson.

National Child Protection Week (29 May to 5 June 2022) is an annual commemoration of the rights of South Africa's children. Within our government, the lead Department for children / children's rights / protection of children is Social Development, which then partners with other related Departments as well as civil society organisations and non-governmental organisations. The critical pieces of legislation and policy articulating this are the Children's Act (Act No. 38 of 2005) and Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, in particular Section 28 of the Bill of Rights

The news that children in South Africa are not doing very well, and certainly not being protected in any substantive sense will not surprise anybody.

We have become deadened to the daily horror stories about child abuse and child murder in a quite profound way. To try and put our awful figures into some kind of perspective, I compared our rates of child murder to two countries of roughly similar population size. Italy (population 60.4 million) and the United Kingdom (population 67.8million) have similar population sizes to South Africa (population 59.3million). 

Four children murdered every day in SA

In 2021, almost four children were murdered every day in South Africa (over 1400 every year), translating to approximately 350 children every three months. In the UK, approximately 58 children are murdered every year, while in Italy, the homicide rate across the entire population (all age groups) was 278 in 2020. What this means is that in an entire year in Italy, there are about 70 fewer murders (in total/for all age groups) than there are children murdered in South Africa every three months. 

In the many years that I have been writing about children for academic outlets as well as the popular media, I am always struck by how amid these staggering statistics, I can be fairly sure that there will always be a murder or a story of abuse that is so cruel and unfathomable, that it will rise to the surface of the cesspool. This time it was the rape and brutal murder of six-year-old Bontle Mashiyane in early May in Mpumalanga – apparently for muti. To make matters worse, one of the people arrested was her neighbour.   

READ | Man accused of Bontle Mashiyane's murder released on parole 5 months ago 

Given the horror of the individual murders, and the magnitude of these numbers, National Child Protection Week has become primarily focused on stopping the cycle of abuse, neglect and exploitation of children. This is in line with the World Health Organisation (WHO) definition of child maltreatment: "All forms of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect or negligent treatment or commercial or other exploitation, resulting in actual or potential harm to the child's health, survival, development or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust or power." Our approach in South Africa is not only in line with that of the WHO, but is also, of course, correct. But I want to shine a light on what I see as a more subtle (even invisible) failure in our approach to child protection.  

In a recent piece Pierre de Vos makes the important point that we cannot let the incidents of "spectacular racism" (Theuns du Toit urinating on the books and laptop of a black student) detract from or "make it easier for individuals and institutions to delay (or avoid) any reckoning with white supremacy of which these acts are mere symptoms".

In a similar vein, there is a real danger that the abovementioned child murders become so cruel and dreadful that they begin to conceal how, as a country, we have failed to get the basics right for our children.

The first step in preventing abuse and murder of children is getting the basics of care right, safe environments, functioning schools, a police force that is responsive and incorruptible, and a country where some deaths are not deemed to be more worthy of attention than others. And at an even more basic level, making sure that our infants and children have enough to eat.

Malnutrition in Nelson Mandela Bay and Cape Town

Recently, countless children have silently died of malnutrition in Nelson Mandela Bay. Cape Town is also starting to see the first cases of malnutrition – a rarity even in a country with shockingly high levels of stunting. And if children are dying of malnutrition, this is simply the tip of the iceberg as hundreds of thousands of others will be under-nourished and likely to becoming stunted. I have also written previously about children like Michael Komape who have died by falling into broken pit latrines. 

How is any of this even possible in one of the richest countries on the continent and a country classified as upper middle-income? All of these deaths are utterly avoidable if we cared sufficiently to do something about them. We have enough food, and we have enough resources. But we simply do not care sufficiently to feed our most vulnerable, or to fix the pit latrines of children in out-of-the-way places, in poor places, in our' sacrifice zones' (to use a term coined by Naomi Klein) where poor children that are invisible can simply die and not register in our consciousness.  

READ | Malnutrition wolf stalks SA’s children

And while those babies and children were starving to death, our Cabinet was deliberating a gift of R50 million to Cuba, and about whether spending R22 million on a 100-metre flagpole was a worthy thing to do. I could do the maths and work out how many meals that would be, and how many of those malnourished children could have been fed, but I am simply too exhausted. 

If we cannot care sufficiently to prevent babies and children dying of malnutrition, then I would suggest that National Child Protection Week runs the risk of becoming little more than a moment of national hand wringing, where we pat ourselves on the back and talk about the need for action, only to then fall into inaction and apathy. I am afraid that flagpoles, fire pools, and flourishing corruption make a mockery of even the best intentions of National Child Protection Week. We need to go back to the drawing board and get the basics right. If we cannot prevent babies starving to death, then perhaps we do not deserve to survive as a country. 

- Professor Mark Tomlinson is co-director of the Institute for Life Course Health Research in the Department of Global Health at Stellenbosch University. 

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