Devastating child homicides plague South Africa

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CAPE TOWN, South Africa – At night, Amanda Zitho worries that her baby boy is shivering and cold in his coffin and longs to bring him a blanket. She knows that Wandi is dead and gone and it’s crazy, but it doesn’t stop the pain.

Wandi was 5 when he was killed in April, supposedly strangled with a rope by a neighbor in Johannesburg – another child who died in a country where there are too many of them.

According to official figures, around 1,000 children are murdered in South Africa each year, or nearly three a day. But this statistic, horrific as it is, can be underestimated.

Shanaaz Mathews believes many more children are the victims of homicides that have not been investigated properly, have not been prosecuted or are completely missed by authorities. Official figures are “just the tip of the iceberg,” said Mathews, director of the University of Cape Town’s Children’s Institute and possibly the country’s leading expert on child homicide.

In a country where more than 50 people are murdered every day, children are not special and are not spared.

“The violence has taken root” in South Africa’s psyche, said Mathews.

“How do you break this cycle?” she asked.

In 2014, she embarked on a research project to find out the true extent of these child deaths. She did this by having medical examiners lay the corpses of hundreds of newborns, infants, toddlers and adolescents on examination tables to determine exactly how they died.

Reviews of child deaths are common in developed countries but had never been done in South Africa before the Mathews project. As she feared, the results were grim.

For a year, pathologists examined the corpses of 711 children in two mortuaries in Cape Town and Durban and concluded that more than 15% of them had died as a result of homicides. For context, Britain’s official review of child deaths last year found that 1% of its child deaths were homicides. Mathews’ research showed homicide was the second most common cause of death among children in these two ridings.

“And the numbers are not going down,” she said. “If anything, they go up.”

There are two models in South Africa. Teens are engulfed in the desperately high rate of violent street crime in the country. But also, a large number of young children aged 5 and under are victims of deadly violence inflicted not by an offender armed with a gun or knife on a street corner, but by mothers and fathers. , relatives and friends, in kitchens and living rooms, around tables and in front of televisions.

Fatal child abuse is where the justice system often fails and cases “fall through the cracks,” Mathews said.

There was, she said, the case of a 9-month-old child who had seizures after being dropped off at daycare. Although taken to hospital, the child died.

Doctors discovered serious head injuries and told the mother to go to the police, but no one followed up. The mother never reported the death. When investigators tried to revive the case almost two years later, the baby had long been buried and the evidence was cold.

Joan van Niekerk, a child protection specialist, recounts numerous cases marred by police ineptitude and corruption.

“Sometimes I go through stages where I’m more angry with the system than the perpetrators and that’s not good,” she said. She said justice for children in South Africa was unacceptable “hard to get”.

And failures of justice sometimes lead to more deaths.

The neighbor initially accused of the murder of Wandi Zitho was released and the case was provisionally closed because the police did not provide enough evidence, possibly due to a backlog in analyzing medical evidence. legal, according to a police officer working on the case. Months later, the woman was arrested again and charged with the murder of two more children.

Then there was the case of Tazne van Wyk.

Amanda Zitho, mother of 5-year-old Wandi Zitho, puts a scarf around her head before going out to visit her grave for the first time in Orange Farm, South Africa.

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Carmen van Wyk sits on a sofa in her home next to a framed photo of her daughter, Tazne, in Cape Town, South Africa.

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Rebecca Mohapi poses with a photo in the bedroom of her son, Onthatile Mohapi, 12, who mysteriously disappeared and was found dead a week later in Damonsville, South Africa.

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Rebecca Mohapi, whose son Onthatile died in 2019, places one of her favorite toys on her grave in Damonsville, South Africa.

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Tazne was 8 years old when his body was found in February dumped in a drain near a highway almost two weeks after his disappearance. She had been kidnapped, raped and murdered, police said.

Tazne’s parents accuse the correctional system of granting parole to the man accused of murdering their daughter despite a history of violent offenses against children. He had already violated his parole once. They also blame the police for not following up on advice that could have saved Tazne in the hours following his disappearance.

The case was highly publicized. The police minister spoke at Tazne’s funeral and admitted mistakes. “We missed that kid,” he conceded, pointing to Tazne’s little white coffin, trimmed with gold. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa visited van Wyk’s home and pledged meaningful action.

Nine months later, Tazne’s parents feel it was all lip service.

“How many children after Tazne have already died?” Have you been kidnapped? Have you been murdered? Nothing is happening yet, ”said her mother, Carmen van Wyk.

She does not shed tears. Instead, anger boils within her and her community. Houses linked to the suspect and members of his family were set on fire following Tazne’s murder.

It’s not just for the police to stop the abuse, said Marc Hardwick, who was a police officer for 15 years, 10 of which were as a detective in a child protection unit.

He remembers a case 20 years ago. A 6-year-old girl was beaten to death by her father because she watched cartoons and, distracted like any 6-year-old, did not listen to her.

When they arrested the father and took him away – he was then sentenced to life in prison – the victim’s 9-year-old cousin approached Hardwick and said: ‘I think you stopped my bad dreams today.

Obviously, the children in that household were having a nightmare and the other adults had remained silent, said Hardwick: “The reality is that child abuse is not something people want to talk about.

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