We must stop the suffering of children

The callous murder of two young children last week should serve as a shock to our national psyche.  In the first incident, police reported that a passer-by found the body of a half-naked four-year-old girl hanging from a tree in Katlehong. In the other, a five-year-old girl was found dead beneath a pile of rubble in Diepsloot.

A society based on the values of democracy and freedom is often judged by its respect for the rule of law and commitment to upholding the dignity and rights of its citizens.  However, at the most basic level a society is measured by how it treats its weakest members.

These incidents are unacceptable in our society. Our Constitution offers notable protections for women and children. This is further evident in various pieces of legislation and our commitment to international conventions to respect, promote, protect and advance the rights of women and children.

Our law enforcement is also geared to protect the vulnerable and the re-establishment of Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences units within the South African Police Service is beginning to bear fruit. 

Minister of Justice Jeff Radebe recently announced that Sexual Offences Courts would be re-launched to help cut the backlogs of sexual offences cases. The government is also heartened that the courts have handed out life sentences, which will hopefully serve as a deterrent for crimes such as rape.

In spite of these protections, child abuse is still rife.  It is doubly tragic that these latest incidents are unlikely to be the last. The loss of even one child to rape or murder is one too many. The time has come for all South Africans to stand up to ensure that the most vulnerable in society are protected and nurtured.

At the conclusion of the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children Campaign, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe cited disturbing statistics related to incidents of battery, domestic violence and child abuse. Of particular concern is that as many as five out of seven children are abused.

According to South African Police Service statistics last year, 25 862 sexual offences involving children occurred between April 2011 and March 2012. The statistics also show that 793 children were murdered. In the same period over 20 000 children were victims of assault.

Statistics from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) South Africa show that around 30 percent of sex crimes against children involve victims under 10 years of age.

Turning the tide will not be easy, but it is a battle that we all must fight. These appalling statistics reveal that predators will often pounce on the youngest and most vulnerable. 

Every day thousands of children are left alone or unsupervised because parents, guardians or breadwinners need to go to work and have no place to leave them.  It is a well-established fact that children who are alone or unsupervised are more vulnerable than those who are not. 

Most South Africans travel long distances to work largely because of the legacy of apartheid spatial planning which forced black people to the outskirts of society. Because of this we are a society constantly on the move, millions of people travel long distances daily between their places of residence and work. Many others are forced to stay near their places of work for extended periods and often can return home on weekends or at month end.  

Speaking at the last Spatial Planning Seminar in 2010 President Jacob Zuma outlined the challenges we face. “Ours has to be one of the most inefficient spatial distributions of people relative to opportunities and services. We have a spatial distribution that is better suited to middle- income families who have private vehicles, yet we have a large number of people who depend on public transport. This imposes a heavy burden on the poor as well as on the government.”

The government has pinpointed the need to tackle the legacy of poor spatial planning in the National Development Plan (NDP), our blueprint for a future South Africa.  The words in the introduction of Chapter 8 of the NDP which deals with transforming human settlements are a sober reminder of the hurdles we face. “Where we live and work matters. Apartheid planning consigned the majority of South Africans to places far away from work, where services could not be sustained, and where it was difficult to access the benefits of society and participate in the economy.”

Spatial transformation is a long-term project; the NDP envisions that by 2030 we will have seen a shift due to massive investment in infrastructure such as roads, housing, factories and offices in areas where people live. 

With a long-term plan in place, there is hope that the imbalances created by apartheid will eventually be overcome. However, the daily tragedy of the abuse of the most vulnerable in society must be tackled now.

The government calls on society to speak out and to act against child abuse. It is our shared responsibility as citizens to create an environment where children are valued and protected; and we also have a duty to report child abuse to the police.

Communities are encouraged to partner with the police by actively participating in Community Policing Forums. Working in tandem, the community and the local police can put an end to the scourge of child abuse and murder.

Phumla Williams is Acting CEO of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS)