Cape Town - Indiscriminate violence in our communities is a constant threat, not just to the people living there, but to the meaningfulness of interventions by organisations such as ours.
Typical of the desperate pleas from families is the statement: “My child witnessed a killing and is now not doing well in school. We have seen a social worker, but things are not improving. How do I comfort my child?”
The Foundation for Community Work through our Family in Focus programme is trying desperately to take learning opportunities for young children into their homes where our field workers work directly with caregivers who cannot afford the services of preschools. Everywhere our children are at risk.
Whether it is gang-related violence and shootings in Hanover Park, Manenberg or Parkwood; vigilante attacks and street justice in Gugulethu and Khayelitsha; service delivery protests and police retaliation in the various communities in the Western Cape; or labour unrest that’s prone to become violent – children helplessly observe what is unfolding.
All children growing up experience some fear of the dark, of strangers, or monsters under the bed.
These are normal and temporary and are usually outgrown. Research shows, however, that children living in violent communities will experience chronic activation of the body’s stress response system that can lead to immediate and long-term problems in learning, behaviour, and both physical and mental health.
This is particularly concerning when stress system overload occurs during the formative years of a child’s development.
At one preschool, a teacher related that a passing car backfired and all the children ducked under the tables. This clearly demonstrated how our children are being conditioned to their immediate environment.
Research conducted among eight- to 13-year-olds around Cape Town showed that about 40 percent had witnessed someone being killed in their community. Research also found that regular exposure to community violence creates a constant state of fear even if there is no immediate threat.
It is unfortunate that the levels of violence are always higher in our poorest communities.
When post-traumatic stress leads to disrupted sleep, anxiety, reduced awareness and difficulty with concentration we can infer that most children will not perform well at school. Statistics show that more than 50 percent of all the children who started school in 2000/1 dropped out before matric in 2011 and 2012.
Furthermore, protest action and unrealistic demands often lead to violent action where young children are caught between the actions of the protesting adults and the security employed to protect school property.
If there is general understanding that children do what they observe their parents and other adults do, is it justified to ask what happened to the good role models in our communities?
News reports of pupils coming to school with various types of dangerous weapons such as knives, daggers, screwdrivers, hammers and even firearms is a concern because they do not hesitate to use them.
The extent to which female teachers are verbally and physically abused is unacceptable. The recent incident at Crestway Secondary, where the teacher’s hair was set alight, openly demonstrates that prankish and mischievous behaviour has grown into complete defiance and aggression.
Such “skrik vir niks” thugs are hell-bent on making classrooms and schools unmanageable.
When teachers and fellow learners become the victims, it clearly demonstrates that our children do not know how to deal with conflict and tension.
Children do not see enough proof that tension can be resolved by sitting down and talking things through. We have learnt that a smack and a kick do the trick!
Now more than ever we have to start looking at how we turn things around for children of all ages.
Every school, classroom, playground, park and street should have designated peace circles that represent a safe space to step into and resolve tension and conflict without the fear that you will be intimidated and assaulted.
Instead of young people meeting behind classrooms where teachers can’t observe them and having a go at each other, we have to make sure alternative measures for conflict resolution are presented and demonstrated.
As parents, teachers, preachers and community workers we have to demonstrate the beauty and art of communication. If we want to see behavioural changes in our children we have to start looking at how we do things. Remember the changes that we dream of starts with us.
All children need love and warmth, talking and listening, guidance and understanding, limits and boundaries, consistency and consequences, and security and structure. To feel safe children need to know what to expect.
Once we have established some structure at home we have to start looking outside.
Schools must be regarded as important community resources and should serve as centres for community programmes and social intervention.
The efforts of community organisations involved in food gardens, distribution of food and aid, food banks, milk banks that distribute breast milk for babies, and volunteers who provide counselling services are efforts that should be saluted. You have to admire the initiative of Gasant Abarder, executive editor of the Cape Argus, who decided to serve as a champion for the many victims of rape and abuse by raising funds for Rape Crisis through his participation in the Cycle Tour.
The efforts and dedication of many other community organisations working to make our schools better and safer are steps in the right direction.
When so much is entrusted to us as adults, we cannot just be editors, NGO directors, teachers, lawyers, and doctors, community leaders and clergy. We have to be different.
We have to become dream builders. In our small ways we collectively have to give hope to our communities and the children.
Despite the poverty, crime and violence we have to make our children believe in their potential and that nothing is impossible.
Without hope our children will be trapped in poverty and continue the downward spiral of violence.
* Riedewhaan Allie is the director of the Western Cape Foundation for Community Work