The establishment of the Children’s Commissioner’s Office allows hope for an improvement in the state of children’s rights in the province. The office will be solely dedicated to advocating children’s rights. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko/African News Agency (ANA)
The Western Cape is a dangerous place for children. The province has the highest child murder rate in the country, with four children murdered every week.

Besides that, children are subject to violence, abuse and rape every day. This is in stark contrast with the rights extended to children under both international and South African law.

South Africa has committed to respecting children’s rights, including their right to life, under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, and the Constitution.

With this unacceptable situation in mind, children’s rights advocates have campaigned for a Commissioner for Children (Children’s Commissioner) in the province for almost 20 years. Their calls to establish a state institution to monitor and promote children’s rights are founded in the constitution of the Western Cape, which specifically provides for a provincial Children’s Commissioner.

In February, children’s rights advocates celebrated a huge victory in their struggle, when the legislature enacted the Western Cape Com­mis­sio­ner for Children Act.

The act finally establishes a Children’s Commissioner empowered to monitor, advise, recommend, investigate, research, educate and lobby on children’s rights in the fields of health services, education, welfare services, recreation and sport.

To this end, the commissioner may set up a monitoring system and collaborate with child rights bodies.

The commissioner is empowered to investigate children’s rights, and while investigating may accompany the police on their investigations, subpoena witnesses and request them to produce evidence, as well as administer an oath or affirmation to witnesses.

There is general agreement that the former institutional set-up was insufficient to end the cycle of violence against children.

Before the act was passed, the Children’s Rights portfolio at the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) was the only institutional body mandated to monitor and promote children’s rights. Due to severe budget constraints, the SAHRC’s work is constantly impaired.

The establishment of the Children’s Commissioner’s Office allows hope for an improvement of the state of children’s rights in the province.An institution solely dedicated to advocating children’s rights is to be established.

Financial and personal resources, as well as focus, will not be split between different interests, as is the case with the SAHRC’s various portfolios. The act guarantees the Children’ Commissioner’s independence

Appropriate funding is crucial for an effective commissioner, and this poses a major challenge. The Department of the Premier has announced plans to allocate R8million to establish the Children’s Commissioner and R5m to cover annual running costs. In comparison with the SAHRC’s budget, this constitutes a considerable increase in resources to protect children’s rights, in particular in light of the mandate being limited to the Western Cape.

At the same time, there is doubt whether said sum will allow for the commissioner to fulfil its mandate effectively. The act requires the Children’s Commissioner to be independent from any government institution, and a standalone office comes with high expenses.

Questions as to the purpose and the allocation of the announced sum were raised by the Standing Committee on Premier and Constitutional Matters. There is hope, however, that the Children’s Commissioner will be adequately funded, since the premier himself has made its establishment a priority.

In his statement on the occasion of the Child Protection Week and Youth Month in June, the premier committed to improving the situation for children in the Western Cape. A first step has already been taken, with the announcement that applications for the position of the commissioner will be opening soon.

The establishment of a Children’s Commissioner at provincial level has already resulted in calls to introduce such a commissioner at national level. In this respect, it should be noted that although the protection of all children in South Africa is desirable, the provincial establishment would most likely be more effective.

It is encouraging that the province has finally embraced its constitutional obligation to establish the Children’s Commissioner. It is hoped that more provinces will follow the Western Cape’s lead.

* Josefa Dengler is an intern at the Centre for Constitutional Rights.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media

Cape Argus