By ANNA TALBOT, Rhodes University Community Engagement
On Human Rights Day, we commemorated the extreme lengths citizens went to gain personal freedoms and shared rights. While there have been vast strides in the realisation of human rights in South Africa, statistics indicate that children in our country do not experience the protections and freedoms our constitution promises them.
In South Africa, an Optimus Foundation study found that over 40% of young people aged 15-17 have experienced sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse or neglect at some point in their lives.
Recently, Makhanda was at the centre of Deon Wiggett’s and News24’s My Only Story podcast about sexual predation in elite private schools. While the problem is certainly not unique to Makhanda, nor private schools, the podcast has elevated and encouraged an urgent call to action regarding child protection in South African schools and our community.
Dee Blackie, founder and director of Courage, said at a recent Makhanda workshop, “Child protection is not only something that happens in townships. It needs to happen at every level of society – it’s one of those things that cut through”.
Child protection begins with recognising and realising children’s rights- to safety, nutrition, quality schooling, play and recreation.
With its vision to have a city united for its children, St Mary’s Development and Care Centre launched the Makhanda Children’s Rights Coalition (MCRC) this week with several key stakeholders and organisations – a necessary, well-timed and courageous commitment to changing the status quo for the children in Makhanda. The MCRC seeks to be a dynamic space for Children’s rights and protection practitioners to deliberate and collectively act on matters affecting the lives of children in Makhanda.
Work has already begun in realising this vision. On 25 February, a Courage Workshop, facilitated by Dee Blackie was held with several Makhanda-based organisations. The workshop is a comprehensive process to empower communities around South Africa, deal with the child protection challenges they face every day, and support participants in understanding, developing, and implementing child protection strategies locally.
Internationally, more than 5000 participants have engaged in the highly influential and inspirational workshop. Having studied in Makhanda herself and having worked in children protection for the past 12 years, Dee Blackie said about the workshop: “I visited during Child Protection Week 2021, to run a Courage workshop with schools and NGOs sponsored by the Kavod Trust, and saw the commitment of child protection officers in the region.
“However, I was devastated to listen to Deon Wiggett’s Season 2 of his My Only Story podcast about Thomas Kruger and the clear signs of grooming and abuse that led to his death in 2018. Thomas was at junior school with my son, and we felt his loss deeply. At the time, I remember people commenting that Thomas was a ‘troubled child’ and thinking that children are not born troubled; society and their environment create this reality for them.
“Deon’s podcast brought this into stark relief for all of us. When I was contacted by St Mary’s DCC and Rhodes Community Engagement, I was very happy that the Makhanda community were committed to standing up and doing something about this issue.
“I offered to run a pro-bono workshop and sponsored some toolkits to start the process of stakeholder engagement as it is only when we all work together, government, police, education, health, social development, and community members, that we will start to address these issues and hopefully prevent them from happening again.”
These workshops are the first of many professional development and capacity building events in the city. The MCRC is committed to building partnerships that advance the realisation of childrens’ rights through action-orientated meetings, workshops and media releases.
Our collective responsibility is to protect ALL children by proactively mitigating child protection risks and responding to all forms of child abuse immediately, effectively and holistically – most importantly ensuring our children are genuinely heard, and their rights are realised in city-wide decision making.
Coalition coordinator, Alex Talbot, said, “[The Makhanda Children’s Rights Coalition] aims to create a platform where child practitioners, public agencies, NGOs, schools, service providers and other stakeholders can share and enhance strategies to promote children’s rights and child protection across Makhanda. The coalition will be a network for capacity building, shared learning and new kinds of collaboration, demonstrating how a city can unite for its children.”