Children commit crimes — theft, murder and rape. They are sent to juvenile centres to await their trials or to serve their sentences. Athandiwe Saba visits the Soshanguve Secure Care Centre where young convicts are treated like children
“I’ve tried to kill myself a couple of times,” says Richard*, who is one of more than 2 000 children in the juvenile programme run by the department of social development.
He entered the child-care programme at the age of nine. His father was a drug addict and there was no one to look after him.
Then earlier this year, Richard was arrested for breaking and entering, and theft. The 14-year-old is awaiting his trial at the Soshanguve Secure Care Centre, along with 34 other children who have committed crimes ranging from theft to murder and rape.
Richard says: “Honestly, I see myself as dead because I have nothing. I have tried to kill myself a few times and I am still trying. I don’t know if I am going to make it to 15, this year. I have nothing else outside. After this, they want to send me to another secure place because I always run away.”
As one walks into the admissions section of the centre and through the security gate used by police officers, there is no denying that this is a jail. The finality of the large electric gate closing at the security check is jarring. Once the children have given their details, they must undress in a shower and are then checked for any bruises or marks on their bodies.
Their clothes are taken away from them and they are issued with standard attire — tracksuits in either pink or blue depending on their gender. They are allocated to a dormitory and get four meals a day.
“The food is better than in all the places that I have been to. I’ve been to Walter Sisulu [Child and Youth Care Centre], Oakhaven in Midrand, Don Mattera [Child and Youth Care Centre] and Epworth Children’s Home,” says Richard.
Richard says his father lost his job because of drug abuse and did not show up at court to defend himself. He was taken away from his father, who could no longer take care of him financially. At the last place Richard called home, he stole money from the children’s home.
“I broke into the main office [and] I took my phone back that they had confiscated. And when I showed it to my friend she asked me to go back and get money for her. We were caught with the money on us and arrested.”
Richard has been awaiting trial for three months at the secure centre. That’s three months of being watched by cameras in the public spaces, navigating colour-coded doors and staying behind very high walls.
The head of the centre, Patricia Ramere, has been working with children for close to three decades. She says she does not see the children in her care as criminals.
“Children are the foundation of the nation and if you get it right with them, you can build a future there. These children here have dreams and aspirations that need to be nourished. There are many stories of children who were in the system but have turned out to be managers, entrepreneurs and flight attendants,” she says.
Ramere admits that there are problems, such as constraints on their budgets, officers who bring children to the centre at 2am without the correct paperwork, and the maintenance of the facilities.
“Taking someone’s life is the worst crime and some of the children here have committed that crime. But when they walk in here we can’t treat them as murderers. We understand that they are children. Some of them did not want to commit such a crime but, because of circumstances, they did,” she says.
Ramere tells of how, during a strike at the centre, the children asked her why she was at work and whether she was not scared. She and the children came up with a programme to keep them busy for the day.
“I and the kids came up with a plan of who was going to clean, which group was going to cook and do the dishes.”
Lungi*, another teenager who has been in the centre for about a year, says being incarcerated has been the hardest thing for her. She had broken into her grandmother’s house and stolen money. “My grandmother called the police while I was still inside the house and I was taken to the police station. I was processed and, by the time I arrived here, I didn’t feel anything.”
In her tracksuit and yellow standard T-shirt, Lungi (18) is a straight talker. She says she hates the secure centre, which she calls a prison. She was sentenced to a two-year stint and has just over a year to still serve. This was not her first crime; she had stolen before.
“You have to spend a week here. It will feel like a year. You wake up at six in the morning. Bath and eat. Then it’s time for the social worker’s programmes. Then you sit around the whole day doing nothing. Then at 6pm, gates are locked up again.”
Lungi says the best thing for her is the progress she has made in rebuilding her relationship with her grandmother. “It’s slow and very hard. I have had to learn that what I did was wrong and why it was wrong. My mother [grandmother] doesn’t want to talk to me yet. She even calls me her enemy.”