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A revolutionary goal

Tom Hewitt

Durban's street children are often forcibly swept from view when tourists flock into town - but the World Cup could change all that. TOM HEWITT tells how powerless kids have found a new voice through liberation theology, football and guerrilla PR.


I first witnessed the forced removal of Durban street children one night in 1998, during a visit of heads of state. Two-face and Mduduza, two of the boys I had befriended in my street work, yelled up 17 floors to my flat in the rundown Point district to say their friends were being rounded-up by police, bundled into vans and driven out of town. It shocked me profoundly that human beings could be treated like trash and swept out of sight - using firehoses if necessary - to stop them lowering the tone for visiting VIPs. More than a decade later it continues to shock me, though I've seen it happen many times since: during annual tourism conventions, during the World Conference Against Racism, and even during the Queen's 1999 visit - when ironically I was invited to be commended by the Queen for my work with street children!

While our campaigning on the issue persuaded some official bodies (including the South African Police Service) to stop participating in round-ups, one group if anything intensified its 'operations' with the approach of this summer's World Cup. From as early as last autumn, children began reporting that the Metro Police - the municipal police tasked with upholding city bylaws - were openly stating they would not be allowed in the city during the World Cup. Our staff witnessed officers using batons and pepper spray in their continuing efforts to 'clean up the streets' for FIFA delegates and other tourists. Durban Solid Waste trucks followed the police vans to dispose of the children's blankets and rags, thus reinforcing a message many have heard since childhood - that they are human trash.

The police are not acting on their own whim. They have been under immense pressure from business and tourism groups and community policing forums to get rid of street children as they are 'bad for business'. I recently attended a meeting with the Durban Chamber of Commerce where, after all the usual talk about it being in the best interests of the children to return 'home' to the townships, the chair let slip his belief that they would mug the tourists during the FIFA period.

In fact, street children are responsible for relatively little of the city's crime. The real problem is that they reveal an uncomfortable truth to visitors: all is not well with this society. It's uncomfortable to see a small child sniffing glue at every traffic light. Our citizens search for scapegoats and rationalisations as they wind up windows and lock the doors. 'Go ask Mandela!' they used to shout as the child approached with outstretched palm. More often now it's a shake of the head, then a knee-jerk rationalisation among friends later: Their parents ought to be arrested, these children are all criminals, they are the ones that caused trouble at home and don't respect their parents or culture, they have been sent by adults.

But in truth they are not simply children who refuse discipline at home, nor, as we sometimes imagine internationally, are they all AIDS orphans with no parents. It would be more accurate to call them refugees. Something has made life at home either intolerable or emotionally uncomfortable and pushed these children to the streets. Sometimes it is neglect, other times physical or sexual abuse. From many we hear of parents that drink - and the things that they do to their children when drunk. In other instances a new boyfriend feels uncomfortable about his partner's children from a previous relationship who makes life miserable for them. Sometimes parents have died of HIV/AIDS-related illnesses and granny is struggling to bring in enough money to support the children. These are stories that we hear over and over again.

Aged as young as six when they hit the streets, the children quickly join a group for protection, and learn how to sniff glue. Glue takes away the fear of being away from home in a place where violence is commonplace. It deadens their senses so that, as long as they are high, they do not have to deal with the pain of what they have been through. In this haze of confusion and emotion, the children search for love, affection and acceptance from one another. The very things that family and community should provide.

What message are these children getting from society when store owners hurl abuse at them for begging outside their shop? When people pour water over them as they sleep, when they have to perform a sexual acts for 20 rand in order to eat? When they are excluded from their own city's World Cup celebrations? When they are refused services at hospitals, chased down the streets, rounded-up and dumped outside the city like the refuse of society?
Such things do not only happen in South Africa. Homelessness is a global phenomenon, and at Umthombo we believe it requires a response. Are we all made in God's image, or just some of us? What you do unto the least of these you do unto me. We choose to believe that hardened hearts come not from hatred but an inability to see hope in the situation. Street children are seen as a social issue that that will always be there, an issue that cannot ever be addressed. But this is simply not true.

In fact the number of children on Durban's street has gone down this year, from 500 to about 300 under-18s. The constant flow of children to the streets is less than one would imagine for a city of nearly four million. There are also significantly fewer street children below the age of six. With the right citywide strategy and a philosophy of hope, we are coming to see that the urban phenomenon of street children can be transformed in Durban. Ours is an ambitious 'revolution'. We believe that the best way to address the problem of street children is to listen to them. As Paulo Freire, the Brazilian philosopher of education, said: 'Who better prepared than the oppressed to understand the terrible significance of an oppressive society?'  

Listening in this context is not a simple act. Street children are an oppressed group who have been told through actions and sometimes words that they are the rubbish of society. Little wonder, then, that they internalise this and learn to see themselves as somehow inferior and, worse still, the architects of their own misery. Can street children really imagine that they are made in the image of God? Are they able to articulate the realities of their situation to us in this state? Could they possibly imagine that they 'know things' that are crucial to the development of new strategies in the liberation of street children? We believe so. But to be fully committed to hearing the voice of street children (and former street children) we have to enable them to take a journey. A process that Freire calls conscientisation.

Fortunately South Africa's struggle against apartheid leaves a rich heritage in terms of tools for overcoming oppression, internalisation of the myth of inferiority and alienation. Steve Biko wondered how black people could lead a revolution in South Africa while believing the very lies about their inferiority that they had been told by white South Africans. The goal of the black consciousness movement was therefore to enable black people re-envision themselves as full human beings, 'made in the image of God.' It decried the lies and enabled black people to emerge out of what Paulo Freire described as a 'submerged' state , to regain a sense of self-worth. With this came a sense of agency and the strength to challenge and indeed change the status quo. 'In liberation,' write Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, 'the oppressed come together, come to understand their situation through the process of conscientization, discover the causes of their oppression, organise themselves into movements, and act in a coordinated fashion.'   

This is what happened through Black Consciousness - and at Umthombo we have taken Biko and Freire's ideas and applied them to the urban phenomenon of street children in Durban. When you ask street children why they came to the streets, for example, they will often say that they chose to, and therefore hold themselves to blame for their situation. If we were to end the conversation there we might assume - like those who support round-ups - that they liked the freedom of the streets and simply prefered being there than at home. But we choose to continue the dialogue, and to introduce the idea of street-child consciousness. This enables street children to develop what Freire called 'critical awareness' of themselves and their situation - to understand and articulate the often wider structural problems that caused them to make the choice to leave home. In this way we have seen many begin to escape the internalised sense of themselves as the rubbish of society, and to see themselves as fully human and made in the image of God.

Street-child consciousness is a movement. It is a voice from the streets. In articulating their experiences, street children and former street children directly inform Umthombo's strategies. As in Black Consciousness, this new critical awareness allows street children to believe they have the power to change the conditions that cause others the same suffering that they went through. The conscientised child thus becomes the agent of his own and others' liberation.

Umthombo's team therefore consists of 16 former street children who have been trained as child and youth-care workers, advocacy officers and administrators. But we have learned over the years that the traumas of street-child experience can continue to resurface for years, which is why this core team is fused with 18 other professionals such as experienced social workers and others able to offer the therapy and counselling that can help hugely in the healing process.

In order to help those still on the streets, we use a three-step process which is directly at odds with the short-term police strategy. Instead of rounding up children and sending them somewhere else to hide the problem, we start by engaging with them in activities like surfing, soccer, art, drama and dance - fun and healthy alternatives to the circular glue-dependent street scene. Once engaged, they are able to tap into our therapeutic services at our downtown drop-in centre, and start the healing process.  

Our detractors sometimes claim that by offering these services instead of simply rounding-up kids and sending them back 'home', we are facilitating children in remaining on the streets - even that we are encouraging children to come to the streets to justify our own existence as an organisation! This is a little like claiming that those who opposed the war in Iraq are supporters of Saddam Hussein. In reality our ultimate goal is to ensure that no child has to sleep in the streets in Durban. Our reintegration and aftercare services help to send around 250 children back to their families or guardians each year, but only after crucial preparations that ensure that the healing can continue there, and that they are not going back to precisely the same problems that put them on the streets in the first place.

In the meantime, we assert that street children have the same rights as anyone else, which is why we could not ignore the allegations of police mistreatment and round-ups. As World Cup year approached, Umthombo's former street children started a campaign of activism, following police officers in their cars, asking them to release the children (which surprisingly worked quite a bit at first). However, soon it became clear that one particular captain was determined to demonstrate that he would not tolerate any pressure from Umthombo. So we started chasing the round-ups, taking photos, video footage and sending this to various news agencies. This soon hit a nerve: Durban was marketing itself as a 'caring city' and the footage provided embarrassing evidence to the contrary during the run-up to 2010.

Just as important during this process was opening up lines of communication with potential allies within the local municipality. Even though the Metro Police falls under eThekwini municipality, Durban itself does not have a policy of rounding up street children and so it was possible to develop relationships with good people in key departments interested in replacing round-up tactics with programmes that positively engaged street children. While these negotiations progressed on the inside, our media campaign sought to isolate the renegade captains determined to continue the round-ups. We were determined to wrestle the issue of street children away from safety and security agendas that use enforcement models and back towards social development thinking where qualified social workers, child- and youth-care workers could do their job.

The situation came to a head when Umthombo hosted the first ever Deloitte Street Child World Cup in Durban in March this year. The idea was to celebrate the potential of street children but also to give them a chance to be centre stage as champions both on the soccer pitch and during a conference and arts programmes that ran alongside the soccer. This was supposed to be a moment of great pride for Durban, and indeed it was. The city was hosting teams of street children from eight countries and eThekwini municipality (Durban's local council) was endorsing the event.

However, someone had apparently forgotten to tell the Metro Police. Unbelievably, they continued to round up children, despite the fact that many were involved in the footballing event. It was PR suicide as we had many international media on hand to film the round-ups as they happened. Within ten minutes of meeting with Umthombo, journalists from the Sun witnessed children detained with adults in a Metro Police truck. A photographer took photos and was promptly detained too, turning it into a major story. The municipality realised that it could not get away with allowing police to round up street children without tarnishing the international image of South Africa.

A week or so later a French news team managed to get invited to a 'sweep' (metro Police terminology for a round-up) by pretending to be concerned about whether the police could keep fans safe. Although the same captain proudly showed them chasing children down the street he also mentioned that he was no longer allowed to detain children. Could it be that policy has changed in time for the FIFA World Cup? It's looking good: at the time of writing, some weeks later, there have been no further round-ups.

The Deloitte Street Child World Cup has proved to be one of the most significant advocacy moments in the history of street children in Durban. There was an incredible buzz around the event. For once the children stood proud and took centre stage in the city - not just as humans, but champions! No longer did they feel like the rubbish of society. They were on the national news, in the newspapers and there were international news teams following the event. National Ministers came to watch the event and to meet the kids, along with senior municipal officials and CEOs of companies such as Old Mutual. Towards the end of the event the children were hosted by the eThekwini Mayor Mr. Obed Mlaba. He welcomed each of the teams and even hugged some players. After the event he sat eating with my wife and co-founder of Umthombo, Bulelwa - herself a former street child. I thought of the stories she had told me about round-ups she had experienced as an 11-year-old: being lined up by fire officials on a cold winters day and drenched with the fire hose as a punishment for being a street child. I watched Bulelwa and Mayor Mlaba chatting and getting to know each other, nodding in agreement and laughing. It was a symbolic moment, the dawn of the new era.

The Street Child World Cup reminded street children that they were full human beings. Made in the image of God. Round-ups are fast becoming considered socially unacceptable behaviour, and rightly so. The proof of the pudding will be the coming weeks, when crowds of tourists pour into Durban for matches that will be beamed across the world. But the signs are very good. The local organising committee for the 2010 World Cup has distanced itself from any actions that sweep street children under the carpet and the local municipality has gone on record saying that there is no policy to remove street children for the event.

In fact municipal officials and Umthombo are speaking a very similar language now. It's all about engaging street children, providing them with therapeutic social work services and ultimately reintegrating them back into community. This new era has been brought about by standing up against the injustices but also by providing alternative strategies to the municipality. Together we are developing a citywide strategy that will ensure that the Durban model can be a springboard into this new era for street children across South Africa and beyond.