A regular “street-cleaning” exercise by eThekwini metro police — with one eye on the World Cup — is drawing outrage from hard-hit street children in Durban and the organisations working with them.
Street children who spoke to the Mail & Guardian accused the police of using violence during the round-ups, which usually see them corralled into vans and dumped in “safe houses” far from Durban’s central business district.
Said 13-year-old Kheto Ngcobo: “Sometimes they kick us with their boots and they beat us with their hands. Once, when a fight broke out [between two knife-wielding adults] in the police van, I got sprayed with pepper. My eyes burned and burned.”
Ngcobo was one of 14 street children rounded up by police this past weekend and dumped — with adults — at a safe house in Hammarsdale, about 40km outside Durban. He said that, with others, he escaped and stole a train ride back to the city.
Round-ups have often happened in Durban before major international conferences or sports events.
Now, with the World Cup in mind, it appears metro police have stepped up their efforts. The children allege that the police sometimes attempt to take them back to their homes, but end up dumping them on the roadside.
Seventeen-year-old Wendy Ndlovu said she and two friends were recently left in Amanzimtoti, 30km away. “[The police] dropped us near the garage. I asked the people where town was and we started walking. We walked all night and we slept in the bushes,” said Ndlovu.
“[The police] say we can’t be here [in the city] for the World Cup and that they will take us to a nice place. But they end up leaving us anywhere or in these scary houses.”
NGOs say the round-ups “deepen the trauma experienced by arguably South Africa’s most vulnerable children” and undo their attempts at “therapeutic rehabilitation”.
Tom Hewitt of Umthombo Street Children — which operates in Durban’s Point area, where most of the city’s estimated 400 street children live — said: “The police don’t have the social welfare training to deal with the children. They’re also transporting them with adults and housing them in places where homeless adults also live.
“This could lead to sexual abuse and coercion into criminal activity.”
Umthombo runs sports and arts programmes aimed at empowering street children, including daily surfing lessons. Children waiting for its city-centre offices to open greet Hewitt with the question: “How are the waves, Tom?”
Hewitt says that Kheto Ngcobo has been on the streets for nine years and was caught in a number of round-ups over the holiday period, leaving scars. “Street kids aren’t as resilient as people think they are; they develop coping mechanisms, such as drug abuse, to deal with trauma.”
It remains unclear who is ordering the round-ups. Metro police spokesperson Senior Superintendent Rajen Chin said police were merely “following orders from the municipality” and doing their jobs.
“It’s against the Children’s Act to have these children sleeping on the streets. We take them to a safe house where they get attention. We’re doing it every weekend. Whenever we have a spare van we round them up and take them there,” he said.
But the council’s safer cities department head, Martin Xaba, tasked with dealing with street children, prostitutes and homeless people, claimed the practice has officially stopped.
“Our office is currently working with the Health Department on a more integrated strategy to deal with street children and others on the street,” he said, adding that the new approach, drawing in more social workers and ensuring more after-care, would be ready by the end of the month.
According to Lucy Jamieson, a senior advocacy coordinator at the University of Cape Town’s Children’s Institute, delays in enforcing sections of the Children’s Act of 2005 facilitate police crackdowns.
“The police are still operating on the Child Care Act of 1983, which doesn’t make provision for street children. The Children’s Act is more sophisticated; it recognises street children and sets up processes for a more holistic approach for dealing with them, including outreach programmes, assessments and the provisions of services. But five years down the line this is still not operational.
“So the police are within their rights — but they don’t appear to be interpreting the law considering the most important factor: what’s in the children’s best interests?”
Jamieson said there were delays in finalising the details of legislation presented to Parliament early last year. “Provinces also haven’t made plans to implement the Act, but hopefully this will be resolved by April,” she said.
That street children are a provincial responsibility is also a sticking point in KwaZulu-Natal. Stakeholders said the provincial department regards street children as a safety and security issue, rather than a social one.