What is Street-child Consciousness?

What is Street-child Consciousness?

 From: "Street Thoughts" on the Street Action website

Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement are a key part of a rich heritage of social thought in South Africa. Biko, who was killed by the apartheid state, recognised that oppressed people often internalise what their oppressors repeatedly tell them and impose upon them. You are lesser people, not as good as whites. Biko knew that a revolution would be unlikely to be led by people who had not set their minds free from this internalization. Black Consciousness was an awakening process for black people where they were able to see their total reality. It was a process of conscientization (sic) whereby black people came to realise that they too were human, were made in the image of God and had a responsibility to and the ability to resist the lie of apartheid. Black Consciousness thinking particularly appealed to the young people, particularly students and it was no coincidence that the 1976 Soweto uprising, which is often seen as the beginning of the end of apartheid, happened at a time where Black Consciousness was being embraced by young people. Neither was it a coincidence that Steve Biko was killed a year later.

The process of conscientization (sic), whereby oppressed people learn to see their own reality clearly has been a key foundation in many popular struggles. Becoming conscientized (Sic) invariably leads to a building of self-confidence and a sense of responsibility and resolve to change the situation for others. Revolutions are made when the “conscientized” joining together.

A group of former street children in South Africa has picked up some of the tools used in the fight against apartheid. Intimately in-tune with the reality of the street child experience, they have identified street children as an oppressed group within society. They believe that society’s actions towards street children, in Durban, on a daily basis such as verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, police round-ups and beatings and other degrading actions contribute to the argument that street children are not just vulnerable or marginalised but oppressed. Drawing from the inspiration of Steve Biko and local struggle icons such as Chris Hani and Nelson Mandela as well as the writings of the Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire and the South African philosophy of Ubuntu, they have developed a philosophy called street-child consciousness (SC).

These former street children accept that street children too have internalized the messages imposed upon them from an oppressive society such as You are the rubbish of society, you are just the naughty children, you are the criminals of society, it is your own fault that you are on the streets, you deserve this, you are subhuman, you are animals that hunt in packs, you are a problem to the city, you spoil the image of the city, you are an embarrassment, you are a nobody, you don’t count, you are not a real child, you deserve to be chased away from the city, to be arrested, to be beaten by the police, you are hated and despised, you chose to come to the streets, you are a cheap sex object, you have no dignity, you are expendable, you are not one of us, you are the other. Therefore, if street children actually believe the lies imposed upon them they are unable to see their own reality clearly and lose their sense of humanity. They begin to see themselves as less than others, as second-class citizens. When this is the case, they also remain voiceless and the reality of the street child experience remains hidden.!

Street-child consciousness says that street children are human beings, as important as children in any other children. For people of faith this means that street children too are made in the image of God. The process of conscientization (sic) that Durban’s former street children have embarked on enables them to see their situation clearly and to re-envision themselves as human beings. It reminds them that even if they chose to come to the streets, it was because they did not have the full range of choices that children have a right to. SC says that you are not to blame for having been a street child. You were oppressed. SC says you are not nobody, you are somebody.

As the former street children become conscientized they become aware of the issue of street children as a social justice issue. They suddenly realise that they were victims but now they have the collective power to change the situation for other children. Conscientization inevitably leads to a sense of vocation towards changing the status quo. The former street children of Umthombo have vowed to lead a revolution in the way that street children are perceived and treated in South Africa. I have no doubt that this will happen. Fortunately for Durban, the former street children of Umthombo have developed a philosophy that is also influenced by the foundational South African philosophy of Ubuntu, which promotes a revolutionary style of forgiveness. As the former street children proceed on their quest, they are winning people over to the struggle all the time. Just recently, Sikhumbuzo Makhubela, spokesperson for Umthombo Street Children and a former street child from Durban, who was one of the children rounded up by police in 2001 for the World Conference Against Racism, was given a standing ovation by police after speaking at a community policing forum meeting. Thirty years since the death of Steve Biko, a group of former street children are using his tools to lay a foundation for the struggle for the liberation of street children in South Africa. There is great hope for street children in Durban. Forward with the revolution!

Tom Hewitt
Founder and Chair of Board Umthombo Street Children.
March 2007, Durban

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