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Collective accountability vital in Enyobeni tavern tragedy

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Forensic services and SAPS members collect evidence at the scene of the Enyobeni Tavern tragedy where 22 underage children perished. Picture: ANA

By Edwin Naidu

The East London tavern tragedy where 22 children perished is another of many unfortunate examples under democratic rule of how the South African government has blurred the lines between parenthood and running the country through laws that extend beyond its capability.

The right to vote and treat all citizens as equals is powerfully echoed in what many still term the best Constitution in the world. Yet the reality of delivery and creating the promised better life for all – especially the children of South Africa – show this pledge has been a disappointing failure.

The role of a government is to establish laws that govern society, nurture and grow the economy, protect the country’s borders and provide services to its citizens. Holding the government accountable to the promises in the Constitution is a collective responsibility of citizens. But it does not mean that parents should delegate this responsibility to government.

Children are defined as human beings between birth and puberty, or between the developmental period of infancy and puberty. The legal definition of a child refers to a minor, otherwise known as a person younger than the age of majority. Therefore, children generally should have fewer rights and responsibilities than adults. But in South Africa, this appears to have been switched in pursuit of a flawed rights-friendly approach.

It is clear that the government’s actions in supporting the Bill of Rights, in particular concerning children, has usurped the parenting role, using the law as a carrot. When a senior government official asks why children are allowed in taverns without parental consent, it exposes a leadership that is out of touch with reality. It is the same laws from the government in charge that has led to this current state of affairs.

In the aftermath of the horrendous calamity at Enyobeni Tavern on the weekend of June 27, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) spokesperson, Elijah Mhlanga chimed in with a question: How does a shebeen allow many underage children into a tavern without adults knowing that they are there?

While it may be a fair point to concede, it not helpful, nor does the government take accountability. His boss, DBE Minister Angie Motshekga, is aware of this practice, as previously she has warned children against going to such places. This comment suggests that there are other things her ministry could have done before talking after the tragedy.

Perhaps, this also adds to the narrative of a government hopelessly out of touch with its people – in most parts of South Africa the facilities for youth simply do not exist. If there is knowledge that underage children are being allowed into the club, then Motshekga should have taken her counterpart the Minister of Police Bheki Cele with his officers to gate-crash parties as they occur, send the children home to their parents, and shut down places, like this law-breaking tavern.

It is too late to cry foul afterwards. What comfort for the families of the dead?

What’s worse, propagated by the government and seriously leading to a breakdown in the country’s moral values, is the idea of children or teenagers being treated as adults. While this opens up another debate, the truth is that in South Africa, parents have lesser rights over their children.

Although the Bible is clear that one must spare the rod and spoil the child, one can go to jail for hitting one’s child. Add to this narrative the role of teachers – for so long the de facto secondary parents of children in our country, they have been emasculated since the banning of corporal punishment.

This writer in no way is advocating for a return of corporal punishment. But consider the hotbed of violence that schools have become. There are many stories about pupils beating up, not listening to, or disrespecting their teachers. Of course, teachers too are by no mains blameless for in large numbers many are abusing pupils through illicit relationships and sexual abuse.

The breakdown in the discipline has some of its origins in the absence of corporal punishment, but more important, in the absence of something tangible in terms of a rights-friendly replacement for it.

Speak to a teacher, they will talk about the unruly bullies in their classroom, disrupting lessons, displaying violent conduct, and treating fellow pupils and teachers in a manner not in sync with the rights afforded to them in the Constitution.

Taken a step further, the government seems to want to play daddy and mummy to the nation by giving teenagers the right to sign up for medical operations without parental consent. Does the social grant it dispenses empower the government to know better than the parents of children over what is right for their offspring?

But the worst form of the emasculation of parents by the government has been the regulations around children having access to condoms and contraceptives should they want it.

The Children’s Act states that contraceptives may be provided to the child on request from the child and without the consent of the parent or caregiver of the child if:

  • ‘The child is at least 12 years of age;
  • proper medical advice is given to the child; and
  • a medical examination is carried out on the child to determine whether there are any medical reasons why a specific contraceptive should not be provided to the child’. (Children’s Act 38 of 2005).

The act allows for service providers to legally dispense contraceptives to schoolgirls above the age of 12, without parental consent.

One may argue that this is a sign of a progressive government, mindful that this practice is happening, and taking steps pro-actively to reduce the high number of teenage pregnancies in the country makes sense. As a parent, however, it must be asked whether one would be pleased with the idea of their child going to school with sex on their minds? Of course, this is happening, that much is clear. But certainly moral values should be inculcated in the home.

As a start, children are sent to school to learn. When it comes to the birds and the bees, parents should provide these lessons at home, with the proviso, that these things can be pursued once the child is an adult, with another proviso, that early sex opens one up to a variety of other medical ailments. But that is a discussion for another day.

Therefore, the education official’s question about who allowed the 22 dead children to enter the tavern is a bit out of touch with reality. Children, with the blessing of our government, have assumed the responsibility of parents, assuming that they can do what they want.

It raises a question: Should a government, as ours has done, be instructing parents on what steps to take to look after their children? The law calls on parent/s to take care of their child, maintain contact with the child, be a guardian to the child, and ensure that the child has financial support. This means that both parents must provide for the child’s needs.

A government should not spell this out to parents. They should govern and parents should raise their children.

Last month, on June 22, Cabinet approved the publication of the Annual National Child Rights Status Report, updating the implementation of the National Plan of Action for the Children for 2019-2024. The report highlights the achievements recorded for the 2020-2021 period.

It also highlights areas that remain a challenge, including the safety of children and the continued disparities between the poor and the rich in respect of children. The intervention measures implemented by the government are aimed at realising the rights of children, as outlined in the Constitution.

The report also states the country’s obligations to the UN Conventions on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC). South Africa is a signatory to both the UNCRC and ACRWC. But such words on paper are cold comfort to the families of 22 dead children in East London.

They have been failed collectively by the government, notably, the education authorities, police services, businesses, society in general, and importantly, by their parents.

This tragedy is not the first time such an incident has occurred in the country, leaving grieving parents and government officials and society united in grief, disbelief and their inability to find answers that lurk in front of them.

As a nation, we have not learned from such experiences, however. What’s clear is that children have been given the freedom to become decision-makers when they are not adults. One can argue that in defiance of laws, owners of such venues allow children to express themselves because if they do not frequent such venues, where else can they go in their impoverished communities that government only visits when it wants votes.

Take the Throb nightclub in Chatsworth, south of Durban, as another awful similar situation where 22 years ago on 24 March 2000, a stampede broke out after the detonation of a teargas canister at the venue. There were 600 children aged 11-14 celebrating the end of the school term. The incident left 13 children dead and 100 injured.

No matter the circumstances, all parents of children at Throb that fateful day seemed oblivious of the whereabouts of their loved ones. Surely, a parent calls home after the end of the term to make sure their child is safely home.

Mobile phones have been in the country since 1996, although by 2000 it was only starting to become ubiquitous. Alarm bells should have rung for parents of the children at East London tavern when their young ones weren’t home by midnight.

Following the Throb tragedy, in 2003 community leaders – not the government – built the Chatsworth Youth Centre (subsequently renamed Nelson Mandela Community Youth Centre), not far from the nightclub. It was opened by the late former president and hailed as a “safe place” for young people. This is a great example, too, of a community coming together to build something meaningful for their children so that another throb can be averted.

Certainly, children are getting a raw deal in democratic South Africa where over two decades ago the Schools Register of Needs highlights dire conditions in the schooling system – and the lack of recreational facilities for children. There is no point in a post-mortem and stoning the perpetrators (though the law must take its course) when the government is failing on service delivery, in general, but also for the children of South Africa.

Instead of baying for the blood of the tavern owners, Minister Motshekga and her education ministry, along with the government and parents, ought to follow the post-Throb safe haven example. Not just in East London, but it must do more to create safe spaces for young people in townships throughout South Africa. She must be assertive in taking the police to such places and set an example with the full force of the police and the might of the law.

If not, the next Enyobeni Tavern disaster is waiting at a township near you!

Naidu heads the social enterprise initiative Higher Education Media Services.

This article is original to The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.