Swept Awayby Samora Chapman / 10.03.2010
Everyday for the past 6 months, the Durban Metro Police have been rounding up street children, often beating them, and throwing them in the back of vans. According to Tom Hewitt, founder and CEO of the street children’s organization Umthombo, children are being harassed, beaten and pepper sprayed in these ruthless round-up operations. The kids are then driven out of the city as far as the department’s petrol tab allows and ditched outside Pietermaritzburg or down the South Coast. Alternatively they get dumped at “homeless shelters” where they have to share space, unsupervised, with a frightening mix of street dwellers and gangsters. Here they are often subjected to further abuse or coerced into crime. The city’s by-laws against loitering are used as vague justification for these roundups. In a recent Times article, Superintendent Joyce Khuzwayo rationalised the cops behaviour by arguing that: “They sleep under verandahs, they steal, they mess up the place and sniff glue’. So the children are being methodically removed from the city centre, where many of them are actively involved in Umthombo’s rehabilitation programs. Problem solved, or swept under the rug. Out of sight, out of mind kind of mentality. Some of the children gradually make their way back to the streets. Others just disappear. Humanity features pretty low down on the city’s priority list as they race to botox the face of Durban. We are about to host the biggest sporting event in the world, and the street kids are not invited.
3am Point Road, it’s a stakeout.
I’m crouched in a piss-stained corner of the city playing the part of reluctant young apprentice to a sweating, seething revolutionary. The mission at hand: capture footage for a Canadian TV crew of the cops harassing and rounding up street children. However, it seems my compatriot has other things on his mind:
“An alien my friend. In the Kalahari desert man. It’s fucken wild, I’m telling you. Arms like octopus tentacles. You know we come from aliens right? Google-it man, I’m fucken telling you.”
The street kids huddle like little nomads across the road from our hiding spot. Tossing and turning. Snatches of muted voices float through the dark. The wind picks up from the west, throwing dust in my tired eyes. The crazed revolutionary eats at my nerves as cop cars ease past like hyenas on the prowl. The kids get up one by one and move off around the corner like a nervous herd.
“We gonna get these fucken pigs man. Come on man! What are you fuckers waiting for? You know, I go way back doing this kinda shit, man. Back in the 80’s I was working with Goldstein fighting those apartheid fuckers man. Deep shit… Ja I was ANC man. Laaitie, 18, I’m telling you. It was me and Goldstein – he was the ballistics guy. I escaped to Europe with him. Ah man I’m so deep into this shit you’d never believe. It’s always the same shit man. Money bru. Root of all fucking evil. You know the Oppenheimers? Just Google it man. The fucking Oppenheimers funded the A-bomb man. I’m telling you I’m so deep into this shit. I’m gonna go full time soon man. Quit my job and get these fuckers, man. The government. The cops. We gotta fight man. I know the loop-holes, I can show you. What you do? Are you a film student? Or do you just dig fucking with the cops?”
His ciggy glows in the dark. I’m thinking of a quote I read on a Huletts sugar packet earlier in the day. “If you propose to speak, always ask yourself – is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?’ – Buddha.
The Revolutionary disappears into the city to get cigarettes and leaves me with his camera. I’m alone on Point Road with two cameras at 3am. Fuck this story I don’t wanna die tonight. Two rogues come cruising out of the shadows. Searching eyes. They got that going-nowhere type of swagger. Danger danger. I clutch the cameras and crawl under a car. The wind whistles through the buildings. Dust sticks to my cheek. Breathe slow, they haven’t seen you. I can hear my heartbeat. Goosebumps. A slight chill. My hip bone hurts on the concrete. The smell of piss in my nostrils.
Earlier that night. 12am.
I arrive at Umthombo, which in many ways is the epicenter of Durban’s street child universe. I slap hands with a few sticky, dirty little fingers. “Sawubona. What’s your name? I’m Joegz.” They reach out to me, touching my bare arms, asking me questions, so wide awake for midnight. I’m also a kid, how can I help these guys. Some of them still have shining eyes. Others have gone out, there’s no light left inside. Just little bodies drifting about, living from breath to breath.
There’s white handprints on the wall. The ringmaster is a Canadian. A journalist. He’s marching around the street like it’s Sunday afternoon at the movies. He’s pointing out good hiding spots. “You can shoot from there right? What we need is the money shot. The kids getting chucked in the van, harassed, that kind of thing you know. Are you picking up a good visual?” He walks into the road and waves his arms around. Is this guy for real? This cat doesn’t know shit about midnight in Africa. The kids take little notice, bouncing a stompie. Fighting over a blanket. The Canadian journo doesn’t look them in the eyes. One track mind, he’s gotta get the story.
The Next Morning
Suffice to say I never got the money shot. The cops would have known what was going down from a mile away. It was more like a midnight circus then a fucking stakeout. A week later I read a report that one of the other cameramen got beaten up by the cops for trying to get footage of the roundups. Perhaps this incident and the negative media attention has caused the Metro Police to ease off on the street child relocation program. But Durban has a history of rounding up and dumping street kids before big international events, like the Preliminary World Cup Draw in 2007. Click here and here for more reports. Last week Durban hosted the big FIFA Press Roadshow and the friendly international, Bafana against Namibia at the new Moses Mabhida stadium. In the lead up to the big showcase in June, we’re likely to see an escalation of these attacks on the street kids.
It is estimated that there are between three and four hundred homeless children in Durban. According to Tom Hewitt from Umthombo this is a manageable amount of kids. It’s not like the problem has spiraled out of control. Umthombo has a three step program for re-integrating these kids back into society. First, engage with the kids, get to know them and get them interested in soccer, surfing and other activities to get them off the streets. Then offer therepeutic intervention (Umthombo employ four social workers) to help the kids deal with the trauma that they have experienced as a result of living on the street. And finally, re-integrate the children back into society; by encouraging them to go back school or convincing them to find their families and return home. And that’s what grates most. If the municipality and Metro Cops channeled their support and resources into the existing organizations like Umthombo, that achieve real success in getting them off the streets, they could help solve the problem. Not just defer it, and hide the evidence. But it seems they’re all too distracted by the FIFA feast, like pigs around a feeding trough, to give a shit about finding a lasting solution.
All images © and courtesy Samora Chapman.