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Mandela would be disturbed at statistics showing how some South African children live


Former president Nelson Mandela was very fond of children and whenever the opportunity presented itself, he would welcome them warmly. He loved to be around them and his many quotes serve as a constant reminder of the special place children occupy in society. 

Madiba said “the true character of society is revealed in how it treats its children”. He implored us to “reach out to the children” and to do “whatever we can to support their fight to rise above their pain and suffering”. He also reminded us that “children who sleep in the streets, reduced to begging to make a living, are a testimony to an unfinished job”.

Since children were very close to Madiba’s heart, I’ve decided that in celebration of this year’s Nelson Mandela International Day  on July 18, it would be fitting to focus on children’s access to housing (shelter) as well as basic services, such as water and sanitation. 

This links well with the Nelson Mandela Day 2019-2029 goals which are education and literacy; food and nutrition; shelter; sanitation; and active citizenship. In addition, housing, water and sanitation, among others, are particularly important in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is self-evident that unequal access to safe water, sanitation and adequate hygiene, could be a key factor in preventing the so-called “flattening of the curve”.

Children’s access to housing

One of the most basic needs of all people, including children, is to have an acceptable place to stay. This need is addressed in Section 26 of our Constitution: “(1) Everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing …” and in Section 28 (1)(c): “Every child has the right … to shelter”. 

The important question to ask is: what is considered adequate housing? Particularly in South Africa, where remote rural areas cannot provide the same opportunities, services and resources that are available in urban areas. 

This has become a huge problem in our country because in 2018 (the latest available statistics I could find) rural households included 43% of South Africa’s children (8.5-million), and 57% of them were urbanised. “Yet, children are consistently less urbanised than adults,” reports Katharine Hall, senior researcher at the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town.

As South Africans, we all are very familiar with informal housing. Hall describes it as “informal dwellings or shacks in backyards or informal settlements; dwellings or houses/flats/rooms in backyards built of iron, wood or other non-durable materials; and caravans or tents”. Almost 1.7-million children, representing 9% of our country’s children, lived in such dwellings during 2018. This “has declined slightly from 2.3-million (13%) in 2002”.

Hall highlights a disturbing statistic, namely that 42% of children living in informal housing are aged 0-5 years. These circumstances make it very difficult to stimulate them effectively in order to become school ready. 

Housing can only be adequate if it is not overcrowded. An overcrowded house, according to Hall, is a place where, on average, two or more people live per room (excluding bathrooms, but including kitchen and living room). She points out that 18% (3.5-million) of our country’s children lived in such overcrowded households during 2018. 

Children’s access to safe water and sanitation

Adequate housing also includes the effective delivery of basic services such as clean drinking water on site and basic sanitation in all homes. Section 27(1)(b) of our Constitution provides that “everyone has the right to … sufficient … water” and Section 24(a) states that “everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being”. Also, Article 14(2)(c) of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, obliges the state to “ensure the provision of … safe drinking water”. 

Hall states in this regard that over the past 15 years, children’s access to water shows little improvement. In 2018, almost six million children did not have clean drinking water on site. 

For good living conditions, not only clean running water, but good sanitation is also needed. During 2018, 79% of South African children had access to adequate toilets, but shockingly 4.2-million children still use unventilated pit latrines, buckets or other inadequate forms of sanitation. More than 340 000 children did not have any sanitation facilities at all, according to Hall.

This data illustrates that we still have a long way to go. Children, as well as adults, are put at risk of infection from the Covid-19 virus, particularly in overcrowded households in informal settlements, where social distancing can hardly be maintained. Furthermore, without proper access to adequate water, soap and sanitation, children and adults will be prevented from exercising good levels of hygiene needed to stem the spread of this virus. 

What is needed in South Africa, is a massive infrastructure and social equity project, which unfortunately, cannot be achieved in the short term. Providing more effective and safe public access points and facilities regarding water and sanitation, however, is a matter of urgency, as is greater public awareness of Covid-19. 

Paying it forward

Nelson Mandela was not without reason called the father of our nation, particularly of our children. In 2005 he received the World’s Children’s Prize and in 2009 he was named Decade Child Rights Hero 2009 for his lifelong struggle to free South Africa’s children from apartheid, and for his unwavering support for their rights. 

During his term as president, he gave half his salary to the poor, specifically to children, and when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, he gave part of his $1.2-million prize money to help disadvantaged children. In fact, he and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund have initiated many more projects to ensure a better future for our children. 

It’s fair to say that the few abovementioned statistics, describing the very bad circumstances in which millions of South Africa’s children are still living — 26 years after democracy — and which in many ways disrupt their lives, would have seriously disturbed Mandela. 

Why? Because his focus throughout his life was on creating a beneficial environment for the welfare of our children. On Nelson Mandela International Day and beyond, we are called to do the same by fighting inequality, injustice and helping children in need — the values Madiba lived by. 

Dr Chris Jones heads the unit for moral leadership at Stellenbosch University. The focus of the unit is to provide well-researched information to positively influence the moral landscape in South Africa and beyond within a diversity of religious and secular contexts

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