‘Police did not beat streetkids’

‘Police did not beat streetkids’
    Barbara Cole
    July 07 2008 at 01:01PM

Metro Police who have been accused of beating a group of street children with sjamboks did not assault them, a witness has said.

"The police are blamed for many things, but those police officials did not hit the street children," said a flat-owner, who did not want her name revealed, but whose details are known to the Daily News.

She was reacting to a story in the Daily News in which British holidaymaker Joe Walker, who works for a children’s rights organisation in the UK, said that he looked out of his flat window in Grosvenor Court and saw billowing smoke and terrified children at the site of the former military museum on Snell Parade.

"I raced outside and across to the hillock opposite the museum and saw three Metro police officials lashing out at the children with sjamboks," he said.

Walker said he tried to intervene and asked the police to extinguish the fire.

"The three police officials were extremely menacing and threatened me with imprisonment," he said.

But the Daily News reader, who watched the proceedings from her flat in the nearby Caribbean block of flats, was adamant that while the police burned the children’s rubbish, plastic and cardboard, they did not hurt them.

The children, whom she thought were aged between 12 and 18 years, had been in the same area for weeks, hanging up their clothes, urinating and littering the area. They also used a nearby tap and left it running, she said.

Walker could not be contacted on Sunday night.

After Walker’s complaints, Metro Police spokesperson Senior Superintendent Thokamile Tyala said an investigation would be launched.

 o This article was originally published on page 2 of Daily News on July 07, 2008

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‘We watched cops beat kids’

 ‘We watched cops beat kids’

    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."

Skating

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

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?”

Prostituted girls’ parents not found

Prostituted girls’ parents not found
Nivashni Nair     Published:Jun 18, 2008
Fears that two youngsters will return to the streets

Their parents did not try to find them and it seems the only person who wanted them was the pimp who sold them.

Durban police have not found the parents of two girls, aged between eight and 12, whom they rescued two weeks ago. A man had allegedly been selling them on the city’s notorious Mahatma Gandhi Road (formerly Point Road) for sex.

A 35-year-old man, who has been arrested, allegedly paid them R300 of the R1000 he charged their customers.

The girls lived on the streets and the police have not established where they come from.

They are being cared for at a safe house but, according to those who assist street children, the likelihood of the girls returning to the streets is high.

Vusi Khoza, of the non-government organisation Street Children Operation Siza, said he would not be surprised if the girls ran away from the safe house.

“Right now, these two little girls do not realise that they have been saved — they feel like they are being punished. One has to understand the mentality of a street child to understand why they run away,” he said.

“Most often, these children run away from home because there are rules there. Now these girls are back in a situation where, at the safe house, they are guided by rules.”

“ Once they have to fend for themselves, they become vulnerable and are exploited. This is when they become drug runners and prostitutes and resort to other crimes. It is shocking that they are as young as eight years old,” Khoza said.

“I am almost certain that these girls are missing the friends they bonded with on the streets and they also miss the money they were getting from the pimp.

“When they are older, they will understand that they were exploited but right now I doubt they realise how this has affected their future. Luckily, there are people out there who can help them.”

Durban police spokesman Superintendent Muzi Mngomezulu confirmed that the police were trying to track down the girls’ parents and that a man is in custody pending a court appearance. T he man was on parole after being convicted of a drug-related crime.

A triumph for Durban’s street children

A triumph for Durban’s street children

    June 16 2008 at 12:28PM

By Vivian Attwood

On Friday, just in time for Monday’s celebration of Youth Day, nine special youths underwent a rite of passage at the Durban Children’s Home (DCH) in Glenwood.

The teenagers wore broad smiles, and carried themselves with new-found confidence as they accepted their certificates of graduation from the I Care/DCH Khutaza Adolescent Development Programme.

Among the graduates were Keegan Zulu, 16, and Fundu Shezi, who recently turned 20. These youngsters featured in the article "Breaking ties with the street" (Daily News June 9).

The tenth and final episode in our series on the lives of Durban’s street children, the story highlighted the feelings of sadness and abandonment these two teens have had to live with.

The I Care programme, aimed at developing life skills in children who have made the decision to abandon street life, has made a significant difference to the outlook and future prospects of Zulu, Shezi and their fellow graduates.

All are now aware they did not forfeit any of their rights as human beings when they lived on the streets.

"I learned that I am a person, just like any other person. I will return to my studies because I want to get a job and have my own family one day," said Shezi.

"I have learned to respect myself and others, and to show love," added Zulu.

The three-month I Care programme is just the first step on a long road for youngsters who are leaving the streets, but they will be monitored by the organisation as they are reintegrated into their communities and resume their schooling.

For perhaps the first time in their young lives, these teenagers can hold their heads up high as they join the rest of the country in celebrating National Youth Day.

The I Care Adolescent Development Programme is entirely dependent on donations from the public and business sector.

The programme that has just ended was made possible by the Southern Sun group.

If you would like to make a contribution to the cost of running the next programme, these are the banking details for the organisation: Nedbank, Account number 1648064566, KZN Business Branch, Code 164826.

For inquiries, call Linda Treadwell at 083 479 3941 or 031 572 6870, or visit the I Care website at: http://www.icare.co.za

Biko’s lessons for today

Biko’s lessons for today

    June 02 2008 at 06:02PM

By VIVIAN ATTWOOD

Thirty-two years after the death of Steve Biko, former street children in Durban are using the tools he employed to lay the foundation for the liberation of South African street children.

"When I did the training I was reminded that Biko said mankind was created in the image of God. It was hard for me to accept that about myself. I still felt I was some of the things society had labelled me; inferior, a second-class citizen.

"I thought the terrible things that had happened to me were in some way my own fault. Finally I realised that while I had internalised the messages society sent out, that didn’t make them true."

Bulelwa Hewitt, former street child and co-founder of the Umthombo street children’s project, was talking about the Street Child Consciousness Programme run by the organisation, and modelled on the theories of South American human rights activist Paolo Freire, and martyred South African black consciousness leader Steve Biko.

At Umthombo all former street children who work with children who are currently on the streets are required to follow the Street Child Consciousness programme.

Tom Hewitt describes the theories underpinning the project: "Street children are an oppressed group, just as most South Africans were under apartheid. Society at large, and the authorities, reinforces negative perceptions about street children every day.

"It is inevitable that they internalise their second-class status.

"Street Child Consciousness is a process whereby they learn to re-envision themselves as full human beings.

"It is crucial, because initially they don’t understand the structural basis of their oppression. They took the decision to go onto the streets, yes, but they did not have the full range of choices that should be available to every child.

"Television is a good analogy. If you stand right up against the screen, all you can see is a blur of colour. It’s only when you step back that the details of the picture become apparent.

"On the streets a child feels the pain of each day, but has no conception of how he came to be there, or of his own self worth."

The Street Child Consciousness programme is a process whereby street and former street children undergo an awakening.

They begin to see the situation for what it is, and break through their internalisation of the myth that they are inferior to others.

Reclaimed

Hewitt stresses that, while former street children serve as the best role models for those still on the streets, they cannot be allowed to work with them until they have reclaimed their lost identities.

"It would be as much of an anomaly as black South African policemen were in the apartheid era," he said. "Until you have disassembled the process of marginalisation, you cannot look at it with true objectivity."

Street Child Consciousness is rooted in the writings of Brazilian educationist Paolo Freire, whose writings were smuggled into South Africa during apartheid and avidly read by activists like Biko.

Just as Freire’s philosophy enabled oppressed South Africans to slough off the identities imposed on them by the engineers of apartheid, it is facilitating a metaphorical rebirth for former street children, and helping foster their desire to change the reality of those who are still oppressed.

"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," Hewitt explained.

"I have no doubt that this will happen."

Bulelwa Hewitt said the one redeeming feature of her former life on the streets was the spirit of caring she experienced among the other children.

"We shared the little we had, and showed ubuntu. Street children have lost everything else, but they cling to that vital bond. When one of them is sick, the others nurture that child."

Former street child Sipho Mfeya, 26, joined the staff of Umthombo in 2005. His open nature has made him a favour-ite with children on Durban’s streets.

Drawing on his own experiences, he helps counsel the children and guide them on the path that will lead them out of the city and into caring, safe communities.

"I took to the streets when I was 10 years old," Mfeya explains.

"I was living in Umtata, but my mother worked all over – in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and East London. I was taken in by my uncle when I was eight years old, and we moved to the Jo’burg CBD.

"Between 1990 and 1992 I attended a multi-racial school there.

"In mid-1992 I became a bit rebellious, and my uncle punished me harshly. I didn’t see it as discipline, but abuse, so I went onto the streets of Hillbrow for a year. It was a pretty rough area, even then.

"My uncle would track me down and take me home, but each time I ran away. In 1993 he took me to PE to live with a younger uncle who owned a tuck-shop. When anything went missing, I’d be blamed for stealing, so I returned to the streets. This time I went to East London, because I thought no one would find me there.

"After just two days I met Tom (Hewitt), and he told me about a good shelter where I could stay. I lived there for four years, and then entered anoth-er shelter. In 1999 I heard my father had died the previous year. It really shook me up.

"When I went back to my father’s family, the cycle was complete. I felt great sadness that I had missed seeing my father before he died, but I no longer felt alienated. I went back to school and got my matric."

Studying

In 2005 Mfeya reconnected with Tom and came to Durban to work with Umthombo, while studying IT and following the Street Child Consciousness programme.

"Street outreach soon became so important to me that I suspended my studies to work full time with Umthombo,"he said.

"I am going to register for a law degree next year. I want to make sure that when street kids are in conflict with the law, they get fair treatment and a fair trial. Often there is no one there to act on their behalf."

Recalling life on the streets, Mfeya said that one need is paramount in all street children’s hearts.

"A street child’s greatest longing is to gain acceptance as a human being; to have a sense of belonging. That is first and foremost, even before the need for food, education and a safe home."

          o This article was originally published on page 9 of Daily News on June 02, 2008

A brief, brutal existence

A brief, brutal existence

    May 29 2008 at 01:53PM

By Vivian Attwood

Street children’s activist Tom Hewitt has compiled a terrible list of names. Whenever he looks at it he is overcome by memories of special young women – most still girls – whose lives ended prematurely on the streets of Durban.

He knew each girl well, the circumstances that had brought her to the city, her idiosyncrasies, strengths and fears.

Remembering Sarafina, Yoniswa, Nelly, Samke and many others strengthens his commitment to reintegrating Durban’s street children into caring communities.

Although street life is brutal for all those forced to endure it, girls are the most vulnerable, said Hewitt.

He questioned whether the word "vulnerable" is far-reaching enough to encompass their condition.

"To be vulnerable means to be open to emotional or physical danger, or to be exposed to an attack or possible damage.

"What terms are relevant to the street child experience if this ‘possibility’ is realised and realised often, even perpetually? Street children in Durban, particularly the girls, often live in a state of affliction rather than vulnerability."

Driving through a residential area of Durban recently, Hewitt noticed three street girls with whom he has a longstanding friendship through the Umthombo Foundation.

The children ran up to his car excitedly, and he queried why they were so far from their normal turf.

"We are running from Isaac*. He is raping us. We are afraid," said one of the girls. Isaac is a man in his 20s who has just been released from prison.

When he is drunk he terrorises the street children, beating up the boys and raping the girls.

"When girls who have been living on Durban’s streets, particularly in the Point area, are tested to determine their HIV status, the results are seldom negative," Hewitt said.

"They live in one of the highest possible risk categories for contracting the disease. When you examine their reality it is not hard to see why."

Hearing stories detailing the suffering of girls on our streets, it is difficult to comprehend that they are vilified by mainstream society when they are so helpless to change their fate.

When we cruise past these children windows wound up "just in case" we might more charitably be thinking "there but for the grace of God go I".

Scorn

Accompanying Bulelwa, Hewitt’s wife, on one of her regular visits to a group of street girls near Addington Hospital, I expect them to be as scruffy as the boys, and equally mock-brazen, in an attempt to deflect the scorn they receive from most passers-by. I am wrong on both counts.

Two teenage girls in pretty but threadbare dresses – too thin for the chill wind lancing down the street – lean together, heads bowed.

When they speak of their lives, they glance up only briefly, clearly ashamed of experiences they could not have avoided.

A third, in shorts and a cutaway shirt, clasps and unclasps her boyfriend’s hand as she describes how her baby, born prematurely at Addington Hospital, was taken into foster care.

She is keen to return to her mother’s home in the Eastern Cape, but is determined she won’t leave the streets without her child.

"The foster mother they took my baby to has changed her birth name. That makes me so sad," Phumla* said.

"When I take her little presents, the woman throws them away. Sometimes she chases me away, too. I am afraid she is trying to keep my child for herself."

Umthombo is currently working with social services to make sure Phumla will return to a stable environment, and that her baby will be taken care of.

She has promised to go into rehab to tackle her drinking problem before she starts her new life.

"Zodwa* fled to the streets of Durban because her mother sold her to a stranger for sex. She was nine years old. Two years later, she tested positive for HIV.

"Over the years she has learned to survive through prostitution and the support of fellow group members," Hewitt explained of another street girl.

"She learned to sniff glue very early on to smother fear and physical pain. She lives on a corner near the harbour with the members of her group. Truck drivers stop at night and beckon her and her friends to their vehicles.

"For Zodwa, ‘work’ involves performing sexual acts on truck drivers and local men, letting them penetrate her fragile body. If you ask her about this ‘work’ she is ashamed. She sees herself as the dirty one.

"Sometimes she gets really sick. She rolls herself into a ball under a pile of old clothes and cardboard on the street corner, shutting the world out for days on end. She gets thin. Sleep is an escape. She is bright and informed. She knows exactly what happens when you have full-blown Aids. She waits, just her and her glue bottle."

In the first part of our series on street children, printed on Tuesday last week, Bulelwa spoke movingly about growing up on a waste dump in East London.

She managed to scrounge enough food to survive. Some of her friends were less lucky.

Abusers

"I was misquoted in the media some time ago, and it really exasperated me. I had been speaking to a reporter about my experience as a young girl growing up on the streets, and I’d mentioned the tragedy that reduces some girls in that position to allow abusers access to their bodies in order to keep alive.

"When the report was published, the headline screamed: ‘Former street child prostitute speaks out’.

"It wasn’t that I minded being labeled a former prostitute erroneously. It was the fact he was demonising a certain sector of street children without any idea of what they endure to reduce them to that position, which really infuriated me." In his zeal to secure a scoop for his newspaper, the reporter was buying into the prevailing stereotype that all girls on the street turn to prostitution.

It is true that the majority are sexually exploited in some way, but the label "prostitute" is an unfair one.

Hewitt says: "When a girl arrives on the street it is not long before she attracts interest. Usually it is a boy or young person living on the streets who sees the opportunity for a girlfriend.

"This can mean rape, coerced sex or even fully consensual sex. Often the boy is not sinister but simply acting on normal teenage impulses, albeit in a very abnormal and anarchic environment. This can result in sexual activity almost immediately.

"At other times when a girl arrives on the streets she falls victim to older youths and other men. She is hungry, disorientated and desperate and will do literally anything to survive or feel ‘protected’.

"For many, the first night on the streets is a new chapter in the rape experience of their lives. There is always someone there, ready to prey on new arrivals."

# * Names have been changed

          o This article was originally published on page 10 of Daily News on May 29, 2008

Fuelled by the desire to make a difference

Fuelled by the desire to make a difference

    May 23 2008 at 03:27PM

By Vivian Attwood

Val Mellis, the Senior Public Prosecutor at the Point magistrate’s court, has pretty much seen it all.

In a career encompassing many years’ involvement with child welfare and, more recently, taking a particular interest in the rights of street children in the Point area, she has been exposed to the underbelly of a society that still places a low premium on the safety and wellbeing of its
youth.

By rights, she should be hardened to much of what she encounters. Not so.
‘The rights of the child shall be paramount’

Although colleagues wonder how she can shoehorn everything she does into her working day, be a mother to two young daughters and still be on call 24/7 for people in crisis, she is fuelled by the desire to make a difference in her jurisdiction. The issue of street children is a passion.

"It’s pretty much an all-encompassing job," she concedes.

"I took my present position in 2007, because I like the idea of a fresh challenge."

The Public Prosecutor was challenged immediately – to attempt to keep her fury under control when, on May 25 that year, the provincial department of welfare blew the budget it had been allocated to assist the homeless, on a massive street party.

"To me, that was nothing short of criminal," she said.
‘It’s absolutely crucial that a first-phase shelter is established’

"I hate those so-called event days. Instead of lavishing money on something with no long-term benefit, we need to put continuous programmes in place for the homeless, particularly the street children.

"Some provinces – the Western Cape being a case in point – have legislation on street kids, and a functional, well-regulated system. It is up to the provincial department of welfare to draft similar legislation for KwaZulu-Natal and submit it to parliament."

Mellis is adamant that government stakeholders have to be held accountable for the fate of the street children.

"Section 28 of the Child Care Act states: ‘The rights of the child shall be paramount’," she said.

"We are committed to putting their interests first."

Commenting on the controversy that has flared each time Metro Police officers rounded up street children to remove them from the gaze of those attending events to promote the city, Mellis said: "The round-up approach simply doesn’t work. We need a co-ordinated effort and a task team where every member knows the mandates of the others. At the moment it’s hopelessly disparate."

The prosecutor said that while the Metro Police and the street kids don’t see eye to eye, the Point SAPS take a more sympathetic approach to issues concerning street children.

"I can guarantee you that since February last year the Point SAPS have not conducted a single round-up of street children. They are concentrating on building bonds with the kids to avoid problems."

In 2007 Mellis’s department ran a project targeting homeless adult men. They were taken off the streets, put up at hotels on Marine Parade, and given jobs with the Department of Parks and Recreation for three weeks.

A proviso was that they did not abuse substances during that period.

"The project produced encouraging results, but the most problematic participants were those who had grown up on the streets," she said.

"They were all over 18, but lacked birth certificates and ID documents. In many cases there were no families to contact for details of their date and place of birth. They were battling with addictions.

"One young man struck me in particular. He was a lovable rogue. We were grooming him with the hope of getting him off the streets, but then he blew it by committing a crime, and ended up in prison. I was agonising about why he’d thrown away his chances, when another member of the team explained that he’d not been able to kick his glue-sniffing habit."

Mellis decried the public tendency to dehumanise children living on the streets. Sadly, she said, the children can all too easily internalise the belief that they are subhuman.

"It is scary to contemplate, but if you don’t have an ID book, you literally don’t exist. You are a nothing in society, and therefore you have no self-worth. Why not turn to crime? The guy who doesn’t in those circumstances is a pretty remarkable individual."

The loss of family to HIV and Aids, poverty and abuse are some of the reasons children end up on city streets. Mellis related a recent incident that brought her to tears.

"It was pouring with rain and I found a small boy huddled in a doorway. His face wasn’t familiar, so I stopped to question him.

"He said he was 13 years old and came from Umlazi. Both his parents had died, followed by the aunt who was caring for him. He had no one left in the world."

Mellis identified two critical areas that need to be addressed to ensure that street children do not fall through the cracks.

"It’s absolutely crucial that a first-phase shelter is established. Not at the Point, though, because there is too much temptation and the children will backslide. The second pressing need is to co-ordinate efforts to help the street kids. I want to convene a meeting with all the stakeholders so that they can explain their mandates and begin pooling efforts."

She praised the work done by Umthombo and I-Care in particular: "They are doing an excellent job and I support them in their efforts. They are working within the legal system and following the processes so that the kids are assigned a social worker and are properly assessed. The city has tended to have a poor reputation in that regard."

Apart from the other forms of degradation street children are subjected to, Mellis is greatly concerned by the prevalence of sexual assault on both male and female children on the streets.

"Sometimes they endure the exploitation because of a financial incentive, but that is by no means always the case," she said.

"Cars stop at night and lure the children in. Law enforcement is not keeping track of these sex offenders, although Umthombo is attempting to compile a database on the issue."

Sadly, even when sex offenders who prey on children are identified and arrested, it does not follow that they receive jail terms, said Mellis.

"In every case where we have tried to prosecute these offenders, the cases collapse because the kids are too terrified to testify, and run away," she said.

"My job does get very intense, and the after-hours demands are tough, but you have to be available to help, because you might be the only chance some child has."

          o This article was originally published on page 10 of Daily News on May 23, 2008

Putting street kids’ needs first

Putting street kids’ needs first

    May 22 2008 at 07:02PM

By Vivien Attwood

Tom Hewitt was raised in Britain, where he enjoyed all the benefits of a First World economy and went on to obtain a degree at the University of San Francisco in California. However, when he began to work in Africa, he quickly discovered that his calling lay with those who had grown up with no benefits at all; the most marginalised sector of our community, the street children.

"They are not at risk, or vulnerable. It has gone beyond that," he wrote in a recent article on Umthombo’s website.

"I think about these words ‘vulnerable’ and ‘at risk’. How sanitised they sound. Why are we afraid to use more suitable words and phrases like ‘brutalised’, ‘crushed’, ‘manipulated’, ‘expendable’, ‘afflicted’ or ‘oppressed’?

"For the sake of the children, and our own humanity, let’s join together to bring about a revolution in the way street children are perceived and treated."

When Tom and his wife, Bulelwa, were searching for a name that would encapsulate their organisation’s aims, they knew they had hit pay dirt when they found "Umthombo", the name of a tree that grows in desert areas. It is a symbol of hope; a symbol of life sustained despite the harshest of conditions. The group offers support and friendship to street children.

As well as running outreach and aftercare programmes, Umthombo is partnered, in the running of a drop-in centre, with I-care who are contracted by the municipality for this purpose.

Employing the services of 18 former street children on their staff (Bulelwa herself lived on the streets as a child), they have complete understanding of the children’s position; the reasons why they ended up on the streets; the painful stigmatisation they endure; the risks they are exposed to and their longing to be reabsorbed into a more caring community.

Since Umthombo’s inception, the organisation has helped hundreds of children to leave the streets and find safe homes.

Tragedy

"Despite the tragedy unfolding on our streets, you can’t become hardened," said Hewitt. "You do see a lot of hope, and you have to hold on to that. We are mindful of the negatives, but committed to the positives.

"First off, you have to accept that you won’t get all the children off the street, and concede that their rehabilitation is a process, not something that can be effected overnight.

"Poverty is the underlying reason why kids live on the streets, compounded by the issue of HIV/Aids. However, we are not seeing the ‘sea’ of orphans that was predicted.

"There is a small but steady increase in numbers. Currently, there are in the region of 1 000 street children in Durban, 400 of whom live at the Point. Naturally, we want to reduce their numbers, but it isn’t about statistics. Every one of these children is important."

Umthombo is part of the KwaZulu-Natal Alliance for Street Children. Other affiliates to this umbrella body are I-Care, Youth for Christ, Streetwise and Zamani.

"We are all fully registered Section 21 non-profit organisations that believe in building partnerships and devising and implementing city-wide strategies," explains Hewitt.

"Durban does not have a proud history with street children. Over the years there have been a number of articles in the press highlighting issues such as abuse, maladministration and wasted resources. Street children are constantly dehumanised in the media, yet a negligible amount of crime is attributable to them. Criticising is all very well, but we need to find city-wide solutions we can all buy into."

Although a number of non-profit NGOs have dedicated themselves to improving the lot of street children in KZN, the mandate for the management of issues pertaining to the children is held by the provincial Department of Social Development.

While criticism has periodically been levelled at that department, Hewitt feels that all role-players can make a significant contribution, provided the needs of the street children are paramount.

"You have to be in it for the kids, not because you’re serving your own agenda," he stressed. "Personally, I’d be delighted if, someday, I was out of a job. It would mean all the children were safe and happy in strong, supportive communities."

Skewed

The children’s activist says that while the media might sometimes distort issues for its own agenda, it is a vital means of educating the public and altering skewed perceptions.

"Readers need to examine the issues of why the children come to the city, and what happens to them on the streets. The popular misconception is that: ‘Kids like it on the streets’. In our experience they always run from something. There is always a ‘push factor’."

Umthombo sees reintegration as the only viable future for street children. The organisation provides both temporary support and long-term assistance to help former street children find new families or mend fractured family relationships. Their new environment is regularly monitored to make sure it is conducive to healthy childhood development.

"Aftercare is the most crucial aspect of our strategy," Hewitt asserts. He shatters the common myth that providing shelters will magically resolve the issue of children living on our city’s streets.

"Child and youth shelters are not the be-all and end-all. There are other important emerging services. These shelters are not always located within communities. When they are in the heart of the city, it is all too easy for the children to continue to access drugs. Their fundamental outlook does not improve.

"When the government subsidy dries up as a child turns 18, he or she has no option but to return to street life. If they had been reintegrated into communities instead, they would have a greater sense of purpose and belonging."

While Umthombo, together with I-Care, is contracted by the municipality to run a drop-in centre on Victoria Embankment to provide a place where children can receive assistance in crisis, or get food, Hewitt and other street child advocates are deeply concerned by the lack of rehabilitation-based child and youth care facilities, dubbed "first phase shelters", in the city.

"It is not just drugs that the children have to be weaned off," Hewitt explains. "They live in a state of constant trauma. This sort of facility is hugely important. It isn’t an institution housing children until they turn 18, but a shorter term, a loving and compassionate environment where the children can heal before they are reintegrated into communities."

Parallels

Responding to the contentious issue of the removal of street children whenever there is a major function in the city that will be attended by international delegates, Hewitt said there were parallels between the way South America and South Africa dealt with street children.

"I spent a lot of time in Brazil, observing approaches to street kids. The strategies employed in the two countries are disturbingly similar.

"We’re fully committed to ensuring that Durban makes a great success of hosting the 2010 Soccer World Cup, but not at the expense of street kids. If we are assisted to get the children off the streets in a caring manner, it will be a feather in Durban’s cap, and will show that the city truly cares about their fate."

# If you would like to make a contribution to the valuable work done by Umthombo, and at the same time assuage your guilt at the plight of children on our streets, here is the organisation’s banking de
tails: Umthombo Street Children Action, First National Bank: Davenport branch, account number is 62077976656, branch code 220226.

          o This article was originally published on page 12 of Daily News on May 22, 2008

Hope is something to live for

Hope is something to live for

    May 21 2008 at 11:51AM

By Vivian Attwood

With the help of I-CARE and Umthombo, two local NGOs that are achieving exceptional results in their outreach, rehabilitation and reintegration programmes for street children, the Daily News has been able to interact with street children without arousing their fear or suspicion. They bear battle scars, but they are not completely broken.

Commander*, 15, followed his elder brother on to the streets a number of years ago. He wants to return home, but the pull of the streets is strong. He expressed doubt that he would be able to be reintegrated into his community.

"The streets are no good, though. There is no respect and you cannot learn," he said.

"Many of the children sniff glue to take away stress, but it hurts our legs and knees. It’s not easy to quickly leave glue because it is in our blood.

"It is dangerous for other children to come to the streets, but they are always running away from something. Some run because their mothers are not interested in them. That is my story. I have hope. One day I will go home. One day I will go to school again. Yes, I will go to school!"

Addiction

Bongani* is 17. His parents left him with his grandfather a long time ago, and disappeared. He is crippled from years of sniffing glue and walks in the disjointed way that the children call "Thobela", after a dance song.

Although his body is severely damaged, he dreams of leaving the streets and beating his addiction.

"I want to go to school. Then maybe I can be an aeroplane pilot," he said.

While there are fewer girls on the street than boys, their lives are, if anything, harder than those of their male counterparts.

They are extremely vulnerable to sexual predators, and may form a relationship with a youth simply in order to be awarded some degree of protection.

Sindi*: "I am 16 now and I have been on the streets since I was 12. The police chase us. They spray us with teargas, they take away our clothes, they hit us and sometimes they just lock us up for nothing.

"I was abused when I lived at home, by my stepfather. He would hit me, sometimes, if I came home but I had no food. Then he wouldn’t let me into the house. I became pregnant by my boyfriend. I couldn’t get any medical help. I discovered I was HIV-positive. I had my baby but my mother took her away."

Sindi’s baby subsequently died of unknown causes. No autopsy was performed and the young mother grieves for the daughter who was hers so briefly.

"I would like to go back to school but my Zulu is not good. If I can go back to school then I can get a good life. I could live well. I could live to a hundred years old, even though I am HIV positive," she said, eyes shining as she pictured those utopian circumstances.

Simphiwe*, 15, went on to the streets because his family was impoverished and his mother, who drank heavily, was unable to support him and his younger sister. The two children used to sleep on the streets of KwaMashu. Later they came to the city.

He says: "The streets are not good because many things are happening like people being stabbed, being knocked down by cars, getting sick with TB. There is no one to support you.

"Many people get old on the streets and still find no way to survive. Babies are born on the streets, but still nobody cares. The streets are bad. Our time has been long on the streets."

The story of 17-year-old Thembi* is a source of great encouragement for other street children. She went on to the streets at 12, after her mother died, and lived under a tree in the city with a group of other children.

Umthombo has helped her to return to school and pays a family to take care of her. They also provide books and school uniforms.

"The street taught me to fight. Now I am only fighting with my pen," she says with great pride.

"I am happy now I am at school. I would like to help other street kids so they don’t have to sleep on the streets. I would like them to have a better life than me."

Street survivor

Gift* is one of 18 former street children who work with I-CARE and Umthombo. Originally from Johannesburg, she came to Durban to seek work. What she found, instead, was exploitation and fear.

"I had seen Durban on the TV and thought there were lots of opportunities," she explained.

"At first I did get a job, cooking and cleaning for R10 a day. But my boss, a Sri Lankan, wanted to marry me so he could get citizenship. When I refused he threw me out on to the street.

"I was 18 and a lady told me about Tong Lok, a place in Point Road where many homeless people lived. We looked after ourselves, but I saw many bad things – many deaths. People died of HIV/Aids; people died when they were hit by cars on the street, people died when they got into fights and were stabbed."

Gift does outreach work among girls on the streets. She finds her job enormously fulfilling.

"The best thing about my job is taking a child back home and that child not coming back to the streets again. The worst thing is a child being raped by the police.

"It doesn’t happen that often, but it can happen to both girls and boys. We have a team member who specialises in investigations when something like that happens."

The soft-spoken outreach worker will always be haunted by memories of life as a street child.

"What I try to do is give hope to the children on the streets. Hope is something to live for."

* Not their real names

          o This article was originally published on page 10 of Daily News on May 21, 2008