A child in play therapy with one of Ububele's specially created rag dolls. Picture: Ububele

One of Madiba’s most important legacies was his desire to empower South Africa’s children. If there is one quote of Tata’s that we need to remember this week in honour of his centenary, it is when he said: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” If we look at the state of South Africa’s children, how exactly would Madiba have characterised our soul as a society? Troubled, traumatised, sick? Given current statistics, that would be putting it mildly.

World Vision has said violence against children in South Africa is a national disaster with 34% of our children being victims of sexual abuse. Just to be clear, let me reiterate that one third of our children are being abused sexually.

According to Statistics SA, 55% of South Africans are living in poverty, and Unicef has reported that children of poor families are subjected to poor living conditions, overcrowding, and a lack of safe play areas. Even more heartbreaking is that four out of 10 of our children experience hunger on a daily basis, and Unicef says as a result 17% are moderately stunted.

In 75% of our households fathers are not present. What is this if not a national disaster?

It is wonderful that as a nation we dedicated 67 minutes on Madiba’s birthday to a good cause, but that is symbolic more than it is revolutionary. What we need is for every South African to declare a war on child poverty and abuse.

For those in the middle and upper classes, surely every family could contribute throughout the year to social programmes that address the severe challenges that our children face. We don’t all have the time or skill to take on these challenges directly, but there are plenty of NGOs that struggle from month to month to keep their doors open, whose sole mandate is to safeguard the rights of our children.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation has prioritised the funding of early childhood development programmes, and it couldn’t be a wiser choice.

According to Sumaya Hendricks who works at the foundation: “Research has shown that the cognitive, emotional and social development of children all happens before the age of 6.”

So if we want to reverse the terrible legacy we are leaving the next generation, we certainly need to focus on improving early childhood development.

We hear a lot about children’s access to basic necessities such as food, education, health care and safety, but it is rare that we hear about a very essential ingredient to ensuring a healthy and productive next generation - and that is mental health.

According to the UN’s Rights of the Child, children have the right to mental health care, but this is not something being provided by our government to the hundreds of thousands of children that are traumatised by violence, abuse and neglect in our society. When there is such a desperate need for food and shelter it is understandable that those necessities would be prioritised, but if we continue to neglect the mental health of our children, we will be perpetuating cycles of violence, abuse and trauma for generations to come.

That is why I dedicate The Global Eye this week to the work of a truly inspirational NGO operating in Alexandra township, that works each and every day to address the mental health issues of traumatised and disadvantaged children.

That NGO is Ububele, and it opened its doors in 2001 as an African psychotherapy resource centre to provide the children of Alex play therapy and a safe haven to deal with the plethora of emotional traumas they experience.

Ububele is a Nguni word meaning kindness, compassion and concern for others. That is what Tony and Hillary Hamburger, two of Joburg’s most well-known clinical psychologists, have brought to Alex as their contribution to the new dawn.

Ububele is filling a gaping vacuum of need where there is virtually no mental health therapy available for children from disadvantaged communities.

In the burgeoning township of Alex, with its population of over 750000 lying adjacent to Joburg’s exclusive Sandton city, approximately 45000 are children under the age of 7.

Many of Alex’s children are suffering from severe psychological trauma.

Children as young as 4 come to Ububele’s nursery school re-enacting rape scenes, hitting and biting other children, some carrying the scars of physical abuse. Parents are all too often resorting to violence when they are unable to deal with their dysfunctional children who are quite simply traumatised by the situations they are living in.

Ububele has introduced these children to play therapy using specially produced large dolls dressed like township kids. Over the course of therapy, children have begun to express their fears about what is going on around them, with remarkable results where severe aggression has given way to calmness and greater stability.

In many cases the relationships between parents and children have also been transformed.

Ububele is now training psychotherapists, counsellors and preschool teachers. This is a story of hope that so often fails to make the headlines, yet it is so essential to the future of our country. As Madiba so rightly said, “The reward of the ending of apartheid will, and must be, measured by the happiness and welfare of our children.”

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Foreign Editor.

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