Food first, then we talk politics

Food first, then we talk politics
Katlego Moeng     Published:Jun 23, 2008

Thousands of youngsters live on the streets with empty stomachs and constant fear

As Youth Month — during which young people are encouraged to embrace the freedoms of democracy — draws to a close, many children still feel marginalised by society.

Vusi Stida, 15, originally hails from Vereeniging but now ekes out a living on the streets of Hillbrow. He has been in Johannesburg for about a year but has been a street child for more than five .

“I don’t understand what you mean by democracy,” said Vusi, who is barely literate. When told about children’s rights, he shrugged his shoulders as if hearing a foreign language.

Despite the cold weather, Vusi was wearing a short-sleeved shirt when The Times spoke to him. He shivered in the winter-afternoon breeze.

His only sources of warmth are a fire, which other street children gather around, and a threadbare blanket he shares with a younger friend.

“It is painful living here. I just want a place to stay and I would love to go back to school,” he said.

But Vusi can’t go home.

“My father died when I was still very small and I don’t know the rest of my family because they don’t like my mother … she drinks a lot. So I have to go out and beg for money to get something to eat,” he said.

The child-rights organisation South African Missing and Exploited Children estimates that 60000 children live on South Africa’s streets. According to its statistics, about 1000 children are murdered in South Africa every year, 24000 child sexual abuse cases are reported annually and 1500 children disappear.

Like Vusi, many youths are not reflected in these figures because they are not reported missing and are not registered with a shelter.

Organisations like the Tshwane Alliance for Street Children work tirelessly in dealing with neglect, abuse and homelessness among children, but they say they can only reach a limited number. The organisation houses more than 180 children and its outreach programmes help more than 400.

The alliance’s chairman, Tahiyya Hassim, said: “Poverty and abuse — sexual, physical and psychological — are the main reasons children leave home. But they withstand abuse for many years before going to the streets.”

Some children are thrown out by their families.

Lynne Cawood, of Childline, said: “About 42 percent of boys and 43 percent of girls experience forced sex before 18.”

A despondent street child, Madenza, said: “I can’t live at home, but I can’t live in a shelter either. The police harass us, like this week they came at night and took our blankets. They said they don’t want us on the streets.

“The girls prostitute themselves so they usually have a place to stay,” he said.

Rev Steve Ugo, of Tower of Salvation Ministries, has also come to the aid of the street children . He said the only way to guarantee a good future is by looking after the young.

“Illiteracy and ignorance are dangerous because these are tomorrow’s adults. What kind of tomorrow is this?”

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