South Africa’s children took centre stage at the first UCT Vice-Chancellor’s Open Lecture of the year in Observatory this week, where the university’s former dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences and child rights advocate, Emeritus Professor Marian Jacobs, used her keynote address to discuss how the youth have been represented in the media.
The occasion was also used to mark 10 years of the publication of the South African Child Gauge, the flagship publication of the Children’s Institute.
The Child Gauge draws on the latest research evidence to provide an annual snapshot of the status of children in South Africa.
The Anatomy building lecture hall was packed to near capacity, and among invited guests were politician and businesswoman Dr Mamphela Ramphele, UCT Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price and numerous dignitaries who have contributed vital research to children’s policies in the country.
In keeping with the theme of the evening, “Children on the front page”, Professor Jacobs modelled her lecture along the lines of a story, using examples from newspaper clippings and press photographs to explain the narrative of children in South Africa and how they are perceived in both past and present.
“When I was a child, my favourite books were What Katy Did and Pollyanna.
“In both these stories, the children overcame harsh circumstances which resulted in a happy ending. These stories showed the potential of kids to overcome their reality.
“Basically, they taught us how to play the ‘glad game’,” she said.
“However, the front pages of history tell a very different story for South African children. The children on our front pages should be there for showing our vision for society and desire for peace, but this is not the case.”
She referred to the example of the famous Hector Pieterson photograph by Sam Nzima.
“This became the iconic image of the brutal apartheid state.
“We all focus on Hector Pieterson, but there were other people involved.
“The boy carrying him, Mbuyisa Makhubo, fled to Nigeria. There was Hector’s sister , Antoinette, who now works at the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto.
“There was the photographer , Sam Nzima, and Percy Qoboza, whose newspaper, The World, was banned, and had to flee.
“The image and all those involved showed the impact of apartheid on children. It showed the extent of the repression.”
However, amid the clampdown on basic liberties, exiled South Africans were formulating a declaration on children’s rights, with universities playing an increasing role in exposing the atrocities of apartheid.
In 1989, Francis Wilson, a labour economist at UCT, and others embarked on a research project under the Carnegie Corporation umbrella to investigate economic circumstances in South Africa under apartheid.
The findings completely disproved the Nationalist regime’s claims that black people were not as economically depressed as those in other parts of Africa.
The research, known as the “Second Inquiry Into Poverty in Southern Africa”, was published as a book, Uprooting Poverty: The South African Challenge, co-authored by Professor Wilson and Dr Ramphele, to worldwide acclaim.
“The results of the enquiry also revealed that society has to pay attention to children’s rights, that consultation with the community was vital and the importance of consulting with those most affected by atrocities,” Professor Jacobs said.
The study also prompted the first ideas about the need for a children’s instutute in South Africa, and whether this should be housed in broader society or at university level.
“The 1990s brought new hope. Kids were now firmly on the front pages of the South African constitution and the national conscience.
Laws and policies followed as a result, but the decade also brought the establishment of the Children’s Institute, of which the major success has been the Child Gauge.
“The Child Gauge has placed many issues on the front page, including citizenship, education, health and inequality.
“It has resonated with NGOs, academics, polticians and the media. However, there remain unanswered questions and some concerns.
“For instance, the National Development Plan is not addressing children as a priority, there is no children’s budget and we don’t have a minister for children.”
She believed that, given the current state of the country, South Africa’s children were in “trouble”.
“There are tremendous social problems. Traumatic death of children is on the rise, maternal alcohol abuse is the highest in the world, and there is a crisis in basic education.There has also been the emergence of childhood obesity.
“If we look at our newspaper front pages today, the story becomes clear. Children should have the right to protection, from violence, from prison and from their awful circumstances, but it is clear they do not enjoy this right.
“Gunshot wounds are no longer inflicted on children caught in the crossfire, but as a result of them being deliberately shot.”
Professor Jacobs said after more than 20 years of democracy, the time had come for serious reflection on children’s rights.
“We, as adults, have much to learn from children. We need to learn from the past, listen to our children and respect their opinions.
“We need to find spaces for innovation in academics and learn to engage with others, and we need to be willing to subject what we have learnt to public scrutiny and review. There is still so much to be done.”