Cape Town’s street kids: out of sight, out of mind?

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Authorities in Cape Town deny that street children are being systematically rounded up and transported to a housing camp many kilometres out of town ahead of the World Cup.

Critics of the controversial move to transport street kids and vagrants to Blikkiesdorp housing camp claim that the city wants to prevent visitors from seeing the seedier side of Cape Town. However, City spokesperson Kylie Hatton says: "There has not and will not be a concerted clean-up campaign."

Fears have been raised that an influx of thousands of people during the six weeks of the World Cup could expose children sleeping rough on the streets to abuse by paedophiles and people traffickers.

Speaking at a conference in Cape Town on child prostitution and the World Cup, international child trafficking expert Professor Susan Kreston warned:

“Whereas 99 percent of the fans are coming here for good and valid purposes, one percent will use the World Cup as a shield, to go out looking for street children to exploit sexually."

However, the Manager of The Homestead project for boys in Cape Town, Charmaine Germishuys, says the children are more likely to be used by drug addicts and gangsters.

"Although there is a possibility that paedophiles may exploit the children during the World Cup, I cannot say that we are more or less concerned than we are normally."

Not right
Ms Germishuys admitted that there is genuine concern that, with all the tourists coming to Cape Town, there could be an influx of children from the townships coming into the city to beg. But she disagrees that
rounding children up ahead of the soccer tournament is the right way to deal with the problem.

"I don't think just clearing the streets is the right way to go about it. The city should provide creative activities in the communities to keep the children busy, especially because it's going to be a long
school holiday of five weeks. So if they could prevent the children coming on to the streets of Cape Town in the first place, that would be a better option than rounding them up and moving them to somewhere

Studies have shown that 80 percent of all South Africa’s street kids have a history of physical, sexual or emotional abuse. Many are drawn to the bright lights of the city by the hope of a better life, only to
be sadly disappointed.

Girls make up around 20 percent of all street children and are less visible than boys. When families disintegrate, relatives and neighbours are often more willing to take girls in. But those who do drift on to the streets quickly become involved in prostitution.

Ons Plek (Our Place) is the only intake shelter for girls in Cape Town. It opened in 1988 and provides girls with love, food, clothing, shelter and education. The shelter is located in the heart of the city and is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The Director of Ons Plek projects, Pam Jackson, says it’s important to step in as soon as possible before the girls develop street habits and start living outside the law. She explains:

“We are working with girls who are vulnerable to being used by gangsters, they’re vulnerable to rape.  They’re also vulnerable to all sorts of abuse by the police.  And they’re vulnerable because they might
think that they can make a living begging, but they don’t realise that when they are no longer cute they won’t be able to make a living doing that anymore.”

Where it is possible, both Ons Plek and The Homestead try to reunite children with their families. But often problems at home are such that there is no going back. Some children are so traumatised that life on
the streets seems like a better option.

Ms Jackson believes that Cape Town’s authorities are “exercising overkill trying to get people off the streets and there is too much hype around security issues during the World Cup.”

Most agree that something needs to be done to help children who feel driven to a life on the streets. But rounding them up and transporting them to where they are out of view is perhaps the least imaginative
solution.  The problem will still be there long after the football fans have gone home.