Dear John (Steenhuisen)

Dear Mr. John Steenhuisen,

3 weeks ago we saw you travel overseas to see the impact of the war in the Ukraine and you received private funding which enabled you to do so.  War anywhere is horrific. But do you know that we have our own wars here in South Africa. Do you know about the many children who are abused? Who witness continuous violence? Children, particularly on the Cape Flats who run towards gun fire rather than away? Do you know about this? Or have the cries of our people fallen on deaf ears?

I am felt compelled to write to you as we are in Child Protection Week reflecting on the very real reality of children at-risk, children who experience complex trauma daily, children who are stuck in a system that does not work for them. You might ask why I chose to engage with you, well, honestly, wherever I look, I see signage about living in the “city that works for you” and live in a city that is led by your political party. 

I am deeply saddened by the fact that just 3 weeks ago, a school called hysterically as they lost an 18 year old learner- a son, a brother, a friend, a matriculant.  It was a deeply painful session, as kids from Grade 10 – 12 were struggling with the loss of their friend. A friend who was simply walking to his girlfriend, and never reached her.  Things 18 year olds do over weekends. Fall in love and want to spend time with those that make their hearts flutter.

Last week as I left for work I was told to avoid driving on a different street because there had been acts of violence.  Violence that led to 5 people being shot during peak hour time as people were heading to work.  It was somewhat surreal to see an automatic weapon being passed around like a nerf gun in footage that went viral and yet listening to the sounds of the shots on the streets and fields where children play, and families travel to work, or in search of work.

This evening, as my grade 1 falls asleep quietly next to me, while I finish off my work from the day, a notification pops up telling me that grade 1s at a school in Cape Town (where the city works for you), educators had instructed the learners to put their heads on the desks while parents and caregivers waited to collect them – why, you may ask? because shots were fired as the school gates were opened. I am deeply grateful that no one was shot in this process.

So while your Ukraine visit occurred and the photos taken were contested and went viral.  A trip that while not funded by tax-payers’ money, could have been used to understand and support the end to our war right in your city. Money which could have been used to support local organisations helping young adults exit gangs and prevent young kids entering gangs, community soup kitchens, our local schools and for ways the City, government, organisations and communities can work well together in understanding the complexities of this war.

A war that while not overtly targets children, impacts every aspect of their lives.

A war that stops them from going to school. A war that stops support from being able to reach school. A war that means that there aren’t enough schools or seats and that extra murals aren’t offered equally in a nation where we believe that the rights of children includes access to good enough education – how do educators meet the needs of all the children in a classroom where there aren’t enough seats?

A war that as a part of a bigger structural system complicates the fact that for every 3 children needing an educational psych assessment and support, there is only 1 opportunity available for this to happen.

A war that means that school completion is already under threat and threatened, threatens it more. A war that has foot soldiers, literally as young as 11 years old taking up arms.

A war that is within our own borders and our own city.  One in which the army, police and law enforcement are called in when the death rate is too high or we are close to elections – or so it seems really.

When we do we ask the questions of what allows this war to prevail and persist?

When do we prioritize the wellbeing of children in a city where too often as gang violence or rape or murder become part of their story?

It’s time we sat around a table not looking at plasters or band aids, but with eyes looking at the different layers fueling this war: the silos in which systems work, the lack of integrated public-private strategy, the need for local South African contextual interventions and the opportunities to create a different experience. 

We need to deal with this war.  Children in Manenberg, Gugulethu and Lavender Hill and so many more areas need to know, that their lives are not more, or less important than those in Ukraine.

As someone who wished to see the impact of war, we invite you to come and listen to what we have seen, experienced and learnt from the families we have worked with and to listen to the stories we can share of resilience as well as loss. What will it take for the children living in this war, of poverty and violence to be seen as worthy of long term and sustainable change?

How do we protect them? Let’s talk.

Their lives matter – we need the systems and power spaces to let them know this.

Written by Alexa Russell Matthews