July 03 2008 at 12:35PM
By Vivian Attwood
Two British visitors to Durban expressed shock and disappointment with the city after witnessing and taking photos of Metro police officials harassing and intimidating a group of beachfront street children.
Child rights organisations have reacted in anger at the incident which took place on Tuesday, and eThekwini and Metro have started their own investigation, saying that the city did not condone such behaviour.
There has been a series of unconfirmed reports from street children that they had been rounded up before major tourism events and abandoned some distance from the city.
In 2007 the Daily News reported an incident where an attorney saw Metro police officials burning street children’s belongings.
Joe Walker and his wife, Annabelle, woke at about 7.15am in a flat in the Grosvenor Court building, overlooking the former Military Museum on Snell Parade, to be confronted by the sight of billowing smoke and terrified children.
"I could hardly believe what I was seeing, or the irony of the situation," said Walker.
"I work for a children’s rights organisation in the UK called Street Action and have been to Durban on previous visits to liaise with local NGOs that work with street children. I hardly thought I’d be confronted by blatant human rights violations while on holiday here, though.
"I raced outside and across to the hillock opposite the museum, and saw three Metro police officials lashing out at the children with sjamboks.
"My wife was documenting the events with her camera cellphone from the flat, and filmed the burning of the children’s clothes and other belongings by the police officials.
"Since we arrived in KwaZulu-Natal I have chatted to those particular street kids on a number of occasions, so I tried to intervene and request that the police extinguish the fire. The three police officials were extremely menacing, and threatened me with imprisonment.
"’These kids are the main cause of crime and drugs in this area,’ one of them bellowed," Walker said.
"That’s absolutely untrue. This particular group of children takes enormous pride in keeping their persons and clothing neat and clean, and none of them sniffs glue. They have seen what it does to their fellow street children."
Walker said that in his opinion, the city was skating on thin ice by courting potentially negative international media coverage of its stance towards street children.
"Apart from the aggression shown by the police officials, the fact that they arrived with both a police van and a large police transport vehicle makes it plain that if I hadn’t interceded, the children would have been forcibly removed from the area and dumped somewhere outside Durban, as they say has happened many times in the past," he said.
"It feels like these round-ups are being sanctioned from on high. We will definitely be putting the images we captured on our website.
"The Durban Metro Police need to realise that they are violating children’s constitutional rights. These are serious actions that will inevitably be exposed in the international media."
Later in the morning, several of the street children gravitated back to the site of Tuesday’s confrontation. They were clean and clear-eyed, but obviously very nervous.
"We are scared, but we don’t know where else to go," said a 16-year-old girl.
"They said they are coming back, and we don’t want to be put in the truck. Sometimes they take us very far from Durban and leave us there."
Metro Police spokesperson Senior Superintendent Thokamile Tyala said the incident had not been brought to his attention, but that an investigation would be launched.
"I must stress that we do respect children’s human rights," he said.
"If these events happened, then those responsible will be called to account and can be punished. They are not above the law, and due processes will be followed."
City manager Michael Sutcliffe said: "If this incident took place as it has been described, action will be taken against those involved. I will need a full report from the Metro Police. Until I have had a chance to examine it, it would be inappropriate to comment further."
Joan van Niekerk, national director of Childline, said she was "absolutely appalled by the allegations".
"This is the second fairly serious incidence of police brutality towards children that has been reported to Childline in 2008," she added.
"The first, in the North West, required the intervention of the Child Law Centre in Pretoria."
Van Niekerk said that Tuesday’s incident underlined the extent to which vulnerable children on the street were "not seen as human beings but another genus altogether".
Tom Hewitt, chief executive officer of the Umthombo Street Children advocacy organisation, said: "Metro Police seem to be operating unilaterally."
In contrast, the municipality’s City Health department and the Point and Durban Central SAPS have in 2007 embarked on positive steps towards more compassionate and strategic solutions to the issue.
o This article was originally published on page 3 of Daily News on July 03, 2008