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By Sharlene Packree and Heinz de Boer
Durban's usually bustling street child colonies have all but disappeared from the city after what is believed to be a major police crackdown ahead of this week's Fifa preliminary draw.
City officials remain at odds over the fate of dozens of children, who are believed to have been rounded up by SAPS and Metro Police units before being taken to Westville Prison.
Social workers say this happened after the children and some adults with small children were charged for loitering and given fines they cannot afford. Some may spend up to 90 days behind bars.
City manager Dr Michael Sutcliffe has however strongly denied the allegations, saying he would "never condone" such police action.
But Metro Police spokesperson Superintendent Thozamile Tyala, confirmed that beachfront children were collected by Metro Police in a routine operation.
"We always remove the street children from the beachfront. The children were taken to a place of safety and handed over to social workers," he said.
The Daily News visited several hotspots in Mahatma Gandhi Road (Point Road), Addington Beach, Blue Lagoon and Central Durban where street children are usually seen. There were no children in sight in any of these areas.
There were no children begging at traffic lights or along the beachfront. Adult vagrants at Addington Beach said the children had been rounded up over the weekend and collected by Metro police vans.
A social worker, who asked not to be named out of fear of falling foul of city authorities and who works at a Durban shelter, said the children were picked up by Metro police and charged with loitering.
She said they were taken to Westville Prison.
"Hopefully this is the last time it happens. They can't keep doing this to these children. We should find a permanent solution," she said.
Sipho Mabaso, who works with street children at the Sakhisizwe Reception Centre near Margaret Mncadi Avenue (Victoria Embankment), said that on average there were 200 children living on Durban's streets.
However, since Monday, Durban's street children have disappeared from many of their popular city haunts.
"On average, we see about 5 or 10 children at the reception centre. I haven't seen any of these kids since Monday," he said.
Mabaso said it was "very suspicious" that the children are nowhere to be seen at a time when there were international delegates and media in the city.
"Everybody knows street children are a problem in Durban. So where have they gone to suddenly?" he said.
Sutcliffe has meanwhile called on people with details of forced removals to bring forward evidence.
"Dealing with street children is a social welfare issue, and the Metro Police is not involved. We as the city will never be associated with that.
"It has been an issue discussed at the Joint Operations Centre, and police have been instructed to certainly take away their glue if they are seen with it.
"Obviously there is a heightened police presence now, so the street children tend to not hang out as much," Sutcliffe said.