The harsh reality of child soldiers

At the public dialogue on child soldiers at UCT are, from left, Maulana Thohar Rodrigues, a religious leader in Hanover Park; Ayanda Mfazwe, community leader from Langa; Titania Fernandez, resources development manager at Community Chest; Dr Brian Williams, visiting professor in Peace, Mediation, Reconciliation and Labour Relations at the University of the Sacred Heart in Uganda; and Dr Jino Mwaka , rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Sacred Heart..

Academics, community leaders and NPOs took part in a public dialogue on child soldiers at, UCT, last Wednesday.

In the South African context, a child soldier is any child under the age of 18 who is recruited from as young as 9 years old to engage in the illicit and unlawful activities of gangs or syndicate organisations.

They are armed by warlords to do their bidding against rival gangs.

According to Dr Brian Williams, visiting professor in Peace, Mediation, Reconciliation and Labour Relations at the University of the Sacred Heart in Uganda.

There are an estimated 10 000 child soldiers on the Cape Flats.

Professor Williams has worked closely with Maulana Thohar Rodrigues, a religious leader in Hanover Park, and Magadien Wentzel, a former gangster who is now a peace worker. “In the issues of child soldiers in the South African context, in the first instance is the denial of the existence of child soldiers, and if you have an existence of denial of child soldiers amongst those with the level of policy making powers, it means that no solutions can possibly emerge,” said Professor Williams.

Maulana Rodrigues, said that in gang-infested areas, children are recruited because they were easily indoctrinated and the penalty for convicted youngsters was not as severe as for an adult.

Mr Rodrigues believes the number of child soldiers has grown between 450 and 500 in the Athlone area this year.

Another statistic is that 80 percent of child soldiers from Hanover Park are school drop-outs from primary and high school and they start out as young as 9.

“The way children pay their debts off by the warlord is by killing members of the rival gangs. After every murder committed by the child soldier of the rival, they are being applauded and will get privilege from the warlord and move up in the ranks,” said Mr Rodrigues.

Magadien Wentzel is a former member of the 28s gang. He spent 25 years in prison and 23 years was as a gangster.

He said the existence of child soldiers was a reality and as soon as people saw it, the better it would be for the community.

“If you look at our past, kids were raised to be child soldiers, this is important, it’s long overdue to talk about it,” said Mr Wentzel.

Valdi Van Reenen-Le Roux, director from the Trauma Centre for Survivors of Violence and Torture, said the issue of child soldiers had been discussed in their anti-torture forums.

“A lot of our child soldiers are drop outs but we also need to realise that some of our child soldiers are in schools for a particular reason and that is the gang economy,” said Ms Van Reenen-Le Roux.

“Where do gangs recruit? Where do they sell? It’s within the schools.”

The idea of child soldiers has a broader context within the African continent.

Rector and vice-chancellor at the University of Sacred Heart in Uganda, Dr Jino Mwaka explained the different ways in which children were used as child soldiers in his country.

He said children would be recruited by guerrilla military forces from the most vulnerable homes and used for a political purpose to help overthrow the government and control a section of the economy.

Even though the South African and the Ugandan experiences were different, there was consensus that the effect on children was life damaging and politicians needed to acknowledge that the problem existed.