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Jeunes, culture de la rue et violence urbaine en Afrique / Youth, Street Culture and Urban Violence in Africa

Georges Hérault
Pius Adesanmi

Umtata. A clearing house for delinquents in South Africa

Eghosa E. Osaghae

Texte intégral


1This study focuses on street youth in South Africa, a disturbing phenomenon which could have serious consequences for the future of urban areas in particular and the social progress of the country in general. This study takes the case of Umtata, capital of the former ‘independent’ homeland of Transkei, and the hub of urbanization processes in the predominantly rural region. The background and situational factors which give rise to the problem of street youth, the nature of the problem, and its actual and potential relationship with criminal and urban violence are examined. Efforts to deal with the problem by government and nongovernment agencies are critically assessed. This writer recommends an approach which involves street children themselves in a participatory bottom-up rather than a non-participatory top-down solution.

2The setting of the study places it apart from the popular or standard studies of street youth or, as they are more commonly known, street children, in South Africa. First, following urban sociologists like Wirth (1938), Gans (1962), Fischer (1972, 1975, 1984, 1995), and Agnelli (1986) who emphasize the unconventionality of city life, the phenomenon is approached as an urban malady, a manifestation of urban subcultures, amongst others. This approach helps to focus on the context of the background, foreground and situational factors of street youth, and shifts the emphasis away from personality-related factors which have been given prominence by social welfare and psychological perspectives.

3Second, Umtata, a small ‘Third World’town in the predominantly rural region of Transkei, was selected for the case study, rather than the cosmopolitan cities of Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban, which have been the empirical referents for most of the studies on street children in South Africa. Arguably, the problem of street youth is more acute in larger industrialized cities, where the pathology and effects of urbanism as a way of life are most evident, but these mega cities are not typical for the black majority, having evolved as and tended to remain essentially, white cities. The political sociology and political economy of urbanism in the country, shaped by its apartheid history, necessitate studies of cities like Umtata which have historically been designated black urban areas, and have ‘often provided the only urban experience many black South Africans had’(Redding, 1992: 70). If the major justification for focusing on the mega cities is that they present the greatest problems of industrialization, proletarianization and urbanization (unemployment, acute shortages of housing, slums, sub-cultures, etc.), that for Umtata would be, in addition to the fact that it also presents these problems, albeit on a lower scale, the fact that it provides a first stop and clearing house for most rural migrants, some of whom end up in the big cities.

4Let us complete this introduction with a few words on the methodology of the study. An elaborate review of the literature was undertaken to formulate a conceptual framework. The study of street children in general, and in South Africa in particular, has been dominated by scholars in the fields of social work, psychology, and criminology (cf. Scharf et al., 1986; Swart, 1987, 1990, 1991; Richter, 1988, 1991, 1996; Hickson and Gaydon, 1989; Schurink, 1993; Donald and Swart-Kruger, 1994a, 1994b), and has understandably had a rehabilitative, problem-solving orientation. This approach tends to direct attention to the street children themselves, and pays less attention to the fact that the problem of street children is a problem of the political society as a whole, and can only be realistically tackled as a macro systemic variable. The appropriate conceptual framework required for such a holistic and encompassing perspective is multidisciplinary, including in the main, perspectives from sociology, anthropology, history and political science. This is the approach adopted in this study.

5At the empirical level, data gathering included direct observation, which involved repeated visits to locations in Umtata, where street children are concentrated, familiarization with their day-to-day living, and interaction with them (including unstructured individual and group interviews). To encourage truthful responses by street youth, who might wish to hide their true situation for fear that the researcher could be a police or state agent and/or to gain sympathy, a problem well treated in the literature (cf. Scharf et al., 1986; Richter, 1989), they were promised that the outcome of the research would facilitate the formulation of a participatory approach to deal with their problems.

  • 1 I wish to express my gratitude to the following for their assistance in this project. Lwazi Lushaba (...)

6The children were excited by the prospects of such a solution, which would not lead to their being cleared off the streets and confined to some rehabilitation home where their freedom and ability to make money – a major attraction of street life – would be restricted. The author and his research assistant also visited, interacted with, and conducted interviews with relevant officers in the South African Police Services (SAPS) in Umtata and the Department of Social Welfare, researchers on street children in the department of social work at the University of Transkei, and the Umtata Street Children Programme – Eluxolweni.1 Relevant statistical and qualitative data were collected from these sources.

Street youth: who, why and how?

Who are street youth?

7The term street children has not been categorically defined in the literature. Many authors identify street children as those between childhood and adolescence, generally between the ages of 6 and 18. In addition to street children, there are often older youth in their twenties and early thirties, who are still on the streets and still need help. These older youth constitute the most dangerous segment of street dwellers due to their being involved in crimes and the socialization of younger ones to criminality. While it is true that children between the ages of 6 and 18 constitute the vast majority of street children, it is no less true that there are older ‘children’. It is for this reason that the term street youth is sometimes preferred.

  • 2 ‘Throwaways’ or ‘pushouts’ are children who have been abandoned or orphaned, and for whom relations (...)
  • 3 Runaways/throwaways are basically terms used in the USA, while the of/on differentiation was develo (...)
  • 4 For example, estimates of the number of street children in South Africa has ranged from as far apar (...)

8The substantive meaning of street children is also not clear. Does it refer to children in the street, that is, children who work or earn a living (through begging for instance) in the street to shore up family/household incomes but return home daily (or at least often), or to children on the street who are basically homeless and live day and night on the streets (and alternately, in and out of rehabilitation homes, police cells, or other so-called places of safety)? Are street children runaways or throwaways,2 and do they have to belong to street groups, gangs, or some urban subculture to be regarded as such? These confusing references and categories which derive from contextual (country/ regional) differences in analysis and comparative studies3 can pose problems, especially for determining the actual number of street youth4, and point to the need to contextualize the concept in the specific case one is considering.

9Attempts have been made to universalize street children as an all-embracing concept which refers to all categories of boys and girls who have not reached adulthood, for whom the street (in the widest sense of the word, including unoccupied buildings, wasteland, etc.) has become the habitual abode and/or source of livelihood, and who are inadequately protected, supervised or directed by their families or responsible adults and are therefore in no position to enjoy or assert the rights due to them as youth, be they children on or of the street, runaways or throwaways (this definition is adapted from that of the Switzerland-based Inter-NGO, cited in Schurink, 1993: 5). Within this broad definition, distinctions can be made between career street youth who habitually live in the streets for months and years, and for whom the possibilities of returning home are almost nil, mid-career street youth who have stayed long on the streets but are still likely to return home, and temporary street youth who are typically children on the streets and those who have only recently left home and are trying to find their feet on the streets.

10Even all-embracing definitions like this, although widely accepted, have not made street children a contest-free concept. Most of the studies have been criticized for directing their attention only to those children who are visible on the streets, and not those in slums and shanty towns whose situations are not less hostile (cf. Ennew, 1996). The response to this would be that the term street children refers specifically to children in/on the street and whose very presence there constitutes a special problem, and these should be separated from children in equally difficult circumstances, but who are not on the streets. Some authors have even called for a rejection of the concept of street children because, as Dallape (1996: 283) puts it, it is ‘inappropriate, offensive, and gives a distorted message’.

11In the search for alternative, less contentious concepts, such as children in difficult circumstances or UNICEF’s term, children in especially difficult circumstances – CEDC have been suggested. Although Ennew (1996: 206) points out that the concept is ‘particularly pertinent in African contexts’, it is obvious that it refers to a far wider range of children in problematic circumstances than just street children – refugee children, disabled children, children in armed conflicts (child-soldiers), children affected by organized violence, poor nutrition and disease. Street children, as indicated earlier, refers to a specific category of children in difficult circumstances, and all told, this concept remains the most appropriate for describing youth in difficult circumstances who temporarily or permanently live their daily lives in the streets, with all the attendant problems of lack of protection, criminality, and urban anarchy. This is the sense in which the concept has generally been used in South Africa, and the sense in which it is used in this study.

Why street youth?

12How do we account for the problem of street youth? A lot of factors classified into background or contextual, situational or catalyzing, and factors of personality development and disorders have been identified; though the most important factors in any particular case have been found to be a function of systemic variables such as level of socio-economic development (e.g., industrialization and urbanization) and the nature of the political system (is it authoritarian, democratic or welfarist?). What studies of street youth have often done is to detail these factors and prove they exist in their places of study, without paying much attention to the urban context itself.

13There is wide agreement, however, that street youth are essentially an urban phenomenon, at least in Africa, where the ‘uncaptured peasants’ of the rural areas still manage to retain the traditional social order in which the youth are fully integrated into the extended family and communal units. The search for the roots of street youth should begin, therefore, from the urban context itself, which is at the receiving end of other systemic and micro factors and provides the theatre where these can be manifested and enacted. Is there something about towns and cities that makes them the sites of unconventional problems like that of street youth? This is the question that urban sociologists like Castells (1976), Wirth (1938) and Fischer (1984, 1975, 1995) have grappled with.

14Theory of unconventionality. The answer they provide is based on the unconventionality of urban life itself. Unconventionality is ‘a term that covers a range of behaviour from artistic innovation to expressions of dissenting values, to serious criminality, but (which) all deviate from societal norms’ (Fischer, 1995: 544). Wirth (1938) attributes this fact of urbanism to ‘social breakdown’ or the fact that ‘city life undermines traditional communities which in turn frees, isolates, and alienates people and ultimately produces individualism and normlessness’. The social breakdown thesis has enjoyed a great deal of support, even though, as Fischer observes, there is little empirical support for it. Then there is the compositional argument which attributes urban unconventionality to the ‘weird’people who inhabit and typify cities – ethnic minorities, the artistic avant-garde, professionals and, one might add, rebellious youth (cf. Reiss, 1955; Gans, 1962).

15Finally, there is Fischer’s (1975, 1995) subcultural theory which holds that cities stimulate unconventionality through the generation of a variety of subcultures – a subculture being ‘a large set of people who share a defining trait, associate with one another, are members of institutions associated with their defining trait, adhere to a distinct set of values, share a set of cultural tools… and take part in a common way of life’ (1995: 544).

16Street youth everywhere develop a distinct subculture which is, by all accounts, unconventional. Richter (1991: 7) gives an insight into street youth subculture in South Africa:

On the street, the children are quickly inducted into an established network of places to sleep, eat, find glue, etc, and routines for the day. The children sleep in abandoned buildings, stormwater drains, dumps; they eat in fast food outlets, or establish a regular supply from a cafe in exchange for work.

17Fischer enlarges the scope by noting that larger and more populous cities develop more diversified and unconventional subcultures than smaller cities, though this also depends on the level of industrial growth in the city, how well planned the city is, especially in terms of housing and neighbourhoods, and so on. Fischer’s theory has received wide acclaim as a point of departure for studies of urban problems which, like that of the street youth, have a subcultural element that gives them a life of their own and sustains them across generations.

18It is interesting to note that street youth present rather similar characteristics all over the world and across generations. Such continuities can be explained in (sub)cultural terms. The following characteristics of street children are outlined by UNICEF (1987):

  1. survival by such means as vagrancy, prostitution, begging and drug abuse/trafficking

  2. vulnerability and subjection to sexual, drug, social, political and psychological abuse

  3. advanced maturity (into childmen and childwomen), and the development of passive, apathetic or aggressive, but not necessarily amoral, attitudes

  4. replacement of the family with a social gang

19Specifically, urban unconventionality is also attributable to the fact that the city is the hub of social, economic and political processes and opportunities. As such, it attracts people from all walks of life who desire to exploit the opportunities and the better life offered. As the major city in the predominantly rural Transkei region for example, Umtata was the first point of call for mobile people, and it was from here that some moved to larger cities, especially in the post-apartheid period. Not everyone who comes to the city can compete well or has the wherewithal to attain his/her goals. The frustration, alienation or marginalization that failure to attain set goals breeds, encourages the development of essentially underclass cultures, and the urban mob of the ‘wretched of the earth’ from whose ranks the majority of street children usually emerge. The existence of urban slums adjacent to affluent neighbourhoods, and the perceptions of relative deprivation that emerge, catalyze this development.

20Empirical factors. The literature on street youth in South Africa is rich with explanations which can be broadly classified into background or systemic factors, personality development factors, and situational or foreground factors. Of these, the background factors which relate to the economy and social and political relations, are considered the most important and generalized.

21They include global and national economic decline, a corresponding decline in the quality of living, increased unemployment, poverty and overall material deprivation (cf. Jolly and Cornia, 1984; UN, 1990; Grant, 1991). The incidence of street youth is believed to be directly proportional to the level of material impoverishment, as families, households, and individuals desperately struggle to make ends meet. This is especially true of child labour or children-on-the streets in Third World societies where child labour has been a major feature of the peasant social formation: ‘the growing burden of poverty has made reliance on… children’s economic contribution an essential part of (family) survival’ (Schurink, 1993: 200).

22Poor African countries have been hard hit by the global, economic recession, and the adoption and implementation of structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) whose mainstay is currency devaluation, massive withdrawal of subsidies, drastic cuts in social services and entitlements, and higher costs of social goods, all of which impact negatively on urban areas and the care and welfare of youth. Expectedly, these factors have worsened the problem of street youth. Although South Africa has not formally adopted SAP, the country has witnessed a period of economic decline and, in the 1990s, has been burdened by huge foreign debts, currency devaluation, rising unemployment, and low growth rates.

23The country’s history of apartheid has put blacks at the receiving end of this decline, and although the ANC-led post-apartheid government has since its inauguration in 1994 pursued policies and programmes of reconstruction and development aimed at redressing the situation and empowering blacks, they still constitute the poorest of the poor. It is no surprise, therefore, that with the exception of coloured strollers in the Western Cape, almost all the street youth in the country are black. Restrictions in the informal sector under apartheid severely limited the economic opportunities available to the urban blacks, and denied the country the safety-valve which has served to mitigate problems of street youth in several sub-Saharan African countries. Since the demise of the apartheid regime, the restrictions have been relaxed, but it will take some time before the absorptive capacity of the informal sector has any effect on the problem of street youth.

24The social factors of street youth in South Africa that have been highlighted by scholars include the breakdown of families, especially of the extended family which performed social security functions in the traditional society, poor and inadequate housing, in particular the development of slums and overcrowded living in the townships and locations, and migrant labour. Virtually all of these are attributable to, or were at least accelerated by, the discriminatory policies of the apartheid era. Laws such as the Group Areas Act and the urban influx control measures which made towns and cities white abodes, and restricted blacks to townships and locations where working men in hostels were forbidden to live with their families, tore migrant workers apart from their families. Even in the townships and locations where urban black families managed to live together, the housing shortage was acute and this encouraged the erection of shacks and slums, while the provision of social services including schools and recreational facilities for children was also very limited.

  • 5 The following description of the life of the township child in the apartheid era has been presented (...)

25The townships were, worse still, the battlefield for rebellious youth who in the 1970s, took control of the internal segment of the anti-apartheid struggle. Incessant police raids and brutality and other forms of state repression only served to harden these youth. Many townships were turned into violent and lawless areas where all manner of crimes and deviant behaviour – rape, murder, ‘necklacing’ of suspected collaborators of the state, drug abuse, robbery and hijacking – were conferred with the stamp of political correctness. The conditions of townships and black urban dwellings throughout the country were not conducive to the healthy upbringing of children5 (cf. Chikane, 1986). The number of street youth, many of whom had ample justification to be away from home, increased – in fact, some studies have reported that some street youth found out that life in the street provided an escape from the township violence, which has continued even after the demise of apartheid.

  • 6 Three ‘high-risk’ families were identified: isolated nuclear family and single-parent family; famil (...)

26The family was the direct victim of the evils of apartheid, i.e., – broken homes, single parents especially mothers, long absences of migrant working fathers, illegitimate children, the breakdown of traditional controls, and so on. The fact that most categories of families were at risk of being unable to bring up their children satisfactorily (identified by Madge, 1983),6 became the hallmark of the family. Twenty per cent of households in urban townships were estimated to be headed by women in 1990, while fathers were absent from 40-50 per cent of the homes. In the Transkei region, a major labour reserve in the apartheid days, child upbringing was mostly the responsibility of the mother. This was at a time when rebellion by the youth against authority of all forms was regarded as politically correct.

27Illegitimate and problem children, and some normal children, were in many cases not properly cared for, and were left in the care of guardians and relations. Many suffered physical abuse at the hands of alcoholic parents and guardians, and some were thrown out, or left home for the sanctuary of the street in preference to the hell at home. The effects of dislocated family circumstances on street youth is well established: ‘Characteristic of the family circumstances of street children is the fact that they mainly come from broken and single parent homes, and that some street children were even deserted by their parents’ (Schurink, 1993: 67).

28Political factors. The final category of background factors are political. These mainly have to do with specific policies of the apartheid state, some of which have already been referred to, which produced social dislocation and sustained racial discrimination. One measure which had devastating effects on non-white urban families and encouraged street youth was the forced removal from their neighbourhoods to unfamiliar, often wretched and peripheral neighbourhoods, in pursuance of the Groups Areas Act and segregation policies. This was a major factor for the proliferation of ‘strollers’ in Cape Town. Redding (1992) has analysed how efforts were made to restrict blacks in Umtata to distant and peripheral locations, away from the city centre. It was partly because of the failure of the forced removal schemes that the apartheid regime was forced to declare the city of Transkei a black urban area even before it became an ‘independent’ homeland. Although the effect of removals on family situations in Umtata is not the main focus of her analysis, Redding refers to the problems of overcrowding in the new locations, the belief that black dwellers pose health hazards and the policy of ridding the city streets of (black) vagrants and criminals as major factors in evictions and racial segregation.

29A more direct political factor relates to the government’s policy, or lack of policy, on children in general, and those in difficult circumstances in particular. As was consistent with the overall philosophy of apartheid, black children were not valued by the state. While, for example, white children were entitled to compulsory primary education and excellent recreational facilities, black children were not. Black children, especially those in the homelands, received inferior Bantu education, and were denied all the opportunities the system offered, their white counterparts. White, Asian and coloured families were, in that order, more affluent and stable than black families and were therefore in a much better position to fully discharge their duties toward their children. It is for reasons like these that the behavioural disposition of black children has been attributed to experiences of relative deprivation (Applegryn and Nieuwoudt, 1988; Applegryn and Bornman, 1996).

  • 7 This is contrary to Schurink’s (1993: 36) attribution of the absence of legislation on street child (...)
  • 8 Contrast this, for example, with the USA where the Runaway Youth Act of 1974 provided for federal f (...)

30These underlying racial considerations and unfavourable public perceptions informed the official attitude toward street children, who were regarded as vagrants, criminals, undesirable elements, and a threat to society.7 The emphasis was, therefore, on getting the police to clear them off the streets to a place of safety (police cell, reformatory, etc.) and sending them on trial in children’s courts, as provided for in the Child Care Act of 1960 (amended in 1983, 1991 and 1995), than on reforming or rehabilitating them (cf. Swart-Kruger, 1996).8 There was a general ‘notion that a street child [did] not differ from any other child in need of care and therefore [could] not be treated differently’ (Schurink, 1993: 36).

31The care of street children as opposed to other children in need, like orphans, whose care was provided for in the welfare system was therefore, left to volunteer soup kitchens, shelters, and children’s homes run by religious and other non-governmental organizations and individuals, which originated out of concern, compassion or fear of letting (potential) criminals loose on society (cf. Scharf, 1988). It is instructive that legislation on child welfare only improved following the collapse of apartheid. In 1991, for example, the Child Care Act was amended to, amongst other things, prohibit employment of children under 15 years of age. Another amendment in 1995 included street children in the category of children in especially difficult circumstances, though Swart-Kruger (1996: 232) considers it unfortunate that the problem is still approached from the perspective that street children are children ‘in need of care’. Such an approach fails to tackle the problem from its deeper roots.

32In 1995, the department of welfare set up a working committee on street children, and the country ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, while in 1996 a National Plan of Action for Children was launched. Despite these improvements, Swart-Kruger (1996: 232) reports that ‘street children feel that, on a daily basis, their lives are much the same as they were before’, and suggests that their exclusion from the new structures and processes is partly to blame. The participatory-advocacy approach recommended in the concluding part of this study addresses the question of involving the children, but it is important to bear in mind that policies and programmes do not produce results overnight.

33A major problem is that the approach to street youth remains tentative and sympathy driven, rather than comprehensive and preventive. For one, a coherent policy on street youth does not exist and the emphasis continues to be on clearing them off the streets; for another, care for such youth is still left to voluntary agencies and individuals, some of whom are primarily interested in attracting huge grants from the government and other donors, or exploiting the labour of the youth to make profit.

34While background factors are important in explaining general trends and in identifying systemic changes that are necessary for dealing with the problem of street children, they do not tell us why children end up in the streets or, for that matter, why only some children in difficult circumstances end up in the street and others do not. This is where micro factors of personality development and situationality become important. We may, in fact, regard the background social, economic and political factors as predisposing and facilitative factors; while psychological, situational and foreground factors are catalysing and push factors.

35Psychological factors can be gleaned from the profiles of street children that have been constructed in the literature. Street children are not mentally defective though they tend to be in poor physical condition, suffering from varying degrees of cognitive difficulties and psychological instability, particularly depression and anxiety (cf. Richter, 1989, 1996; Swart, 1988; Scharf et al., 1986). The positive value the children attach to personal freedom and individuality has, however, been associated with the psychiatric classification of conduct disorder, which Giles (1988) refers to as DSM III of non-aggressive undersocialized conduct disorder. The notion of individual pathology as a factor for street living has been seriously challenged, if not nullified, by the conclusions from many studies that street living is one of the avenues for the expression of complex tensions between youth, parents and the society at large (Richter, 1991b: 10).

36Two perspectives of street youth could be inferred from this. First, street living could be seen as a rebellion against the injustices of society evident in class/racial based privileges and oppression. The anti-apartheid struggle helped to legitimize such rebellion. The second perspective sees street living as a survivalist or adaptive response to basic tensions and pressures that arise from relative material and emotional deprivation, harsh and intolerable conditions at home, including physical abuse. This response is usually reinforced, especially in the case of runaway children who have a desire for freedom and money, both of which are available on the streets. Several studies in South Africa have found (easy) money to be a major attraction of street living. These factors suggest that street children are not depraved or criminally-minded, as they are perceived to be – in fact, notwithstanding their deviant subculture, many street children possess high moral values. Moreover, street living requires a strength of character and street wisdom, which are not often acknowledged.

37Attempts to relate background factors to psychological factors in the field of criminology have produced some theories which are relevant to explaining the phenomenon of street youth. First is the strain theory which attributes delinquent behaviour to accumulated frustrations arising from structural inequalities and impediments to the attainment of socially defined success. Another element of the theory sees it as a response to living in a painful and abusive environment (cf. Agnew, 1985). A second theory is the control theory, which emphasizes the failure of family and school experiences to establish social bonds (cf. Hirschi, 1969). The differential association theory focuses on sustained exposure to deviant behaviour and peer groups; and the labelling theory looks at the effect of successive stages of deviant stigmatization. What all these theories have in common is that delinquent behaviour is ‘pre-determined by background experiences and developments that cumulate over time. This is one reason that their focus is on the formative years of adolescence’ (McCarthy and Hagan, 1992).

38The final set of factors we shall consider are those that have been referred to as situational factors (cf. Katz, 1988; Duuren and Di Giacomo, 1996). These include the eviction of children from home following family squabbles, outbreaks of violence, or forced street begging in the face of unbearable hunger, which eventually forces the youth into the street (these are called crimogenic conditions in criminology). Authors like McCarthy and Hagan (1992) and Williams (1996) emphasize the category of situational factors that they term adverse situational conditions which relate to problems of day-to-day survival under excruciating and desperate conditions.

39The basic argument is stated in commonplace expressions like ‘hunger and homelessness lead to street living’, ‘physical abuse at home forces children to the street’, ‘unemployment leads to prostitution’, and so on. All of these are partly grounded in Kett’s (1977) observation that in times of stress young people tend to vote with their feet and pursue lifestyles that deviate from adult notions of social conformity. The situational perspective is important because it attempts to capture the causal element in the crucial final moment when the decision to go to the street is taken, but it is weak in explaining why street living persists beyond the adverse situation, except of course if the situation becomes routine or a daily occurrence).

40The foregoing diversity of explanations gives an indication of the complex nature of the phenomenon of street youth. Though it seems unlikely that any one perspective can adequately account for street youth, and that we need to combine two or more factors to be able to do so. To this extent, the perspectives should be seen as complementary rather than contentious. Nevertheless, the background economic, social and political factors need to be emphasized, because any serious attempt to address the problem of street youth should see it as a systemic pathology rather than the pathology of some unfortunate segments of the population as some of the attempted solutions seem to have done.

The problem of street youths: implications and consequences

41To complete this conceptual section, the issue of street youth as a problem is discussed. One obvious reason would be that they are often associated with crimes in the city which, depending on factors like the availability and use of firearms, could take on a violent character. In general, crimes are a common pastime of street youth, especially career and mid-career street youth. In South Africa, they engage principally in petty crimes such as shoplifting and pickpocketing; they seldom take part in serious crimes like robbery, car hijacking and murder, however, youth gangs whose networks include street youth are known to be involved in serious crimes in big cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town. Glue-sniffing and other forms of drug abuse (not so much trafficking), as well as prostitution also tend to be part of the street subculture (cf. Jansen et al., 1991).

42Given the adverse conditions under which street youth live, and the fact that the street is generally crimogenic, the causal relationship between crime and homelessness has not been as adequately specified as would be expected (McCarthy and Hagan, 1992). The difficulty of imputing causality will be discussed when the relationship between street children and crime in Umtata is analysed in the next section. Street youth pose serious problems in other respects. They have the potential for graduating from petty crimes to more serious offences. They also pose a political risk as they can be easily recruited or mobilized for subversive and destabilizing activities. The experience of the roles they played in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and the roles ‘area boys’ play in riots and demonstrations in cities such as Lagos in Nigeria are instructive. Their frequent engagement in prostitution and homosexuality puts them at serious risk of contracting and spreading AIDS, in addition to other health hazards (cf. Kruger and Richter, 1996). In addition to all this, street youth constitute a ready reservoir for urban violence, and the phenomenal increase in the levels of urban violence the world over has been linked with the rise in the ‘army’ of street youth. It is for the actual and potential problems and risks they constitute to society at large that street youth need to be given far greater attention than has been the case. The rest of this study examines the case of Umtata.

The case of Umtata

  • 9 Redding (1992: 72) cites a white speaker at a town meeting in 1886 who stated that the black locati (...)

43Umtata is the major city in the predominantly rural Transkei region, and the capital of the former Transkei homeland. It occupies ‘a position halfway between the major urban-industrial centres and the rural agricultural hinterland… [and] was a mixture of rural and urban elements…’ (Redding, 1992: 71). Like most cities under apartheid, the authorities tried to make Umtata a white city and racially segregate neighbourhoods in a manner that put blacks in outlying and impoverished townships and locations. In pursuance of this, blacks, considered to be a threat to the health and security of white dwellers,9 were evicted from their original location within the municipality to a new location outside the town.

44Attempts were also made to keep blacks out of the new neighbourhoods like Ncambedlana and Norwood (the latter was supposed to be reserved for white and coloured people). These efforts at segregating and restricting blacks were unsuccessful because of a combination of factors: the location of Umtata in a black rural area; the resistance of a land-owning black middle class; the mixed residential dwellings since white families often housed black domestic workers; the dependence of the white merchant class on black consumers; divisions within the white community; and the financial incapability of the municipal council to pursue a concerted programme of segregation or forced removals (Redding, 1992; Southall, 1984; Manona, 1988). In the end, the central government ‘was forced to declare that Umtata, unlike other municipalities in South Africa, was a black urban area’ (Redding, 1992: 71). The subsequent declaration of Transkei as an ‘independent’ homeland strengthened this status of Umtata.

45Although Umtata did not develop as a typical city in the apartheid era, either in terms of segregated neighbourhoods, black influx control, or industrial growth, it presents many features of the urban setting in the country, albeit on a much smaller scale. This is also true of the configuration of the city which has a core comprising a commercial city centre where the shopping malls, banks, government departments, post office, city hall, municipality offices, churches, etc., are located; and an industrial layout (Vulindlela). Outside the core are the highbrow suburbs of Ncambedlana, Northcrest, Hillcrest, Norwood, Southernwood, Fort Gale, and Southridge (a new neighbourhood which developed in the 1990s), where the top white, black and coloured businesses, financial, bureaucratic and professional elite, and the middle class dwell.

46The outlying areas in which some black, middle and working class families and the urban poor are concentrated comprise Ngangelizwe, Ikwezi, new Ikwezi extension, the old and new locations, as well as the informal or slum settlements of Slovo and Mandela Park which sprouted after 1994 (following promises by the ANC and the late Joe Slovo, former housing minister, to house the poor). Several poor inhabitants of Umtata illegally swooped on the vacant land on the outskirts of the city and erected some shacks. The distinctive mark of these outlying areas which are similar to the townships and locations in other cities in the country, is that only blacks and a sprinkling of coloureds live in them. Compared to the highbrow neighbourhoods, these areas, which can be appropriately called shack settlements, are overcrowded and poorly serviced, many of the dwellers having no access to potable water and electricity. A significant portion of the street youth in Umtata come from these poor and neglected areas of the city, in search of the proverbial good life, though the bulk come from the surrounding rural locations of Lalini, Lutoli, Langeni, Empilweni, Mjika, Mqobiso, Rubuxa, Viedgesville, and the Transkei hinterland.

47Apart from a few significant exceptions, the profile of street children in South Africa generally fits that of Umtata. The characteristics presented in table 1 are extracted from several studies in the literature (cf. Richter, 1991; Schurink, 1993; Eastern Cape Conference, 1995). They should be read in comparison with those of street youth in Umtata constructed from individual and group interviews, direct observation, and frequent interaction with street youth presented in table 2.

Table 1. Characteristics of Street Youths in South Africa

Table 1. Characteristics of Street Youths in South Africa

Table 2. Characteristics of Street Youths in Umtata

Table 2. Characteristics of Street Youths in Umtata

Note 10 : Since the homelands policy was abolished and Umtata is no longer a capital city (Bisho was made capital of the new Eastern Cape Province contrary to the expectations of most Transkeians), it has lost much of its attraction. It nevertheless retains various government departments and remains a commercial centre, in spite of widespread complaints that the Transkei region as a whole is undergoing an economic recession.

  • 10 The figure for the then Western Cape was 813; Eastern Cape, 578; and Natal, 367; (South African Out (...)

48The problem of street youth is not new in the Transkei region. In 1977 when it was a homeland, the number of street youth in the region was estimated to be 977, which made it second highest in the country after Transvaal which has 1827 street children.10 While the possibility of exaggeration cannot be ruled out, given the unreliable manner in which statistical estimates were obtained for the homelands in those days, the high number of street youth in Transkei at the time can be attributed to the influx control measures which prevented them from moving to the more attractive cities in the then Republic of South Africa. The lower number of street youth, especially in Umtata municipality today (estimated by this author in December 1996 to be about 200, roughly the same as the number given by the Eluxolweni street child programme) could, therefore, be partly attributed to the abolition of restrictions on black migration to cities, which has led to migration from Umtata to other towns and cities. As indicated earlier, Umtata serves as a transit stop for most rural migrants enroute to the larger cities, including street children.

49What danger is posed by the phenomenon of street youth in Umtata? There is, to begin with, the menace of unkempt children on the streets, begging and harassing people for money, and the disturbing sight of children eating from dustbins. In the early evenings, the really desperate ones, who have been hungry all day, behave in a menacing manner around fast food outlets and grocery stores. There is abundant evidence that the street children of Umtata are the target of homosexuals and heterosexuals who exploit their situation and entice them with food, shelter and paltry sums of money. This has turned a good number of the youth into male prostitutes and pimps, with all the implications this has for AIDS and their own wellbeing (cf. Kruger and Richter, 1996).

  • 11 Although the statistics are fairly reliable, there is some discontinuity in record-keeping. Records (...)

50By far the greatest danger posed by street youth, however, is in the area of crime. Many street youth participate in ‘fast’ crimes like pick-pocketing and theft from parked motor vehicles. Indeed, street youth are involved in various petty crimes in Umtata, but not so much in really serious crimes such as car hijacking and robbery. According to police records, accounts of officers of the criminal investigation department and reports by police officers who patrol the city centre and commercial districts, the major crimes in which street children are involved are pickpocketing, shoplifting, burglary especially from business and public premises, theft from parked motor vehicles, rape and attempted rape, possession of dagga (marijuana), vandalism and assault. Table 3 presents statistics of selected criminal offences obtained from the Central Police Station in Umtata.11

Table 3. Selected Crime Statistics for Umtata

Table 3. Selected Crime Statistics for Umtata

Note a : Figures are only for the months of August and October
Note b : The figures for 1996 do not include entries for December
Note c : Housebreaking on premises occupied by whites was usually distinguished from housebreaking on premises occupied by blacks, the latter constituted 80-90 per cent of reported cases.
Note d : Figures are only for the months of February, July and August
Note e : The figure is for both armed and ordinary robbery, excluding armed robbery of vehicles
Note f : This includes armed robbery of vehicles
Note g : This includes burglary on public premises
Na : not available

51The table does not show the proportion of the crimes committed by street children, because there is no provision for this in police record-keeping. This makes it difficult for any categorical assertion to be made on the criminal involvement of street youth. Nonetheless, accounts from police officers and interviews with the children themselves indicate that they were responsible for most of the shoplifting, burglary on business premises, pickpocketing, rape, possession of dagga, and ordinary robbery. Another major crime in which youth were involved, but for which no records were kept until 1996, is theft from motor vehicles; 1482 cases were reported between January and November 1996.

52The fact that street children were not significantly involved in the more serious and violent crimes does not, however, mean that a few or even the majority cannot graduate from misdemeanours into felonies. As material conditions deteriorate all over the country, especially in the Transkei region, where hundreds of civil servants have been retrenched as a result of rationalization of the public service, and unemployment figures are very high, the desperation to make ends meet might very well force the children into more serious crimes. The fact that many of them already belong to ‘semi-gangs’, which specialize in different crimes like shoplifting and pickpocketing, means that they could easily be recruited by crime syndicates, as is already happening in other parts of the country. On the other hand, the deterioration of conditions in Umtata could force the more adventurous of them to move on to other more prosperous cities in the Eastern Cape like East London, Butterworth, and Queenstown, and other major cities in the country. This certainly would increase the likelihood of their becoming involved in serious crimes and would multiply the criminal danger posed by street youth all over the country.

Responses to the problem of street youths

53It is partly in recognition of these dangers and out of humanitarian concern, that the problem of street youth has attracted attention from members of the Umtata community. As in other parts of the country, the only concrete steps that have been taken to deal with the problem have so far come from NGOs, especially religious organizations and public spirited individuals who, out of concern and compassion, have established shelter-homes, skills training centres and soup kitchens to feed the children. Umtata has a fair share of these facilities, the most notable being the Eluxolweni Nightshelter and the Skills Training Centre, Southernwood Children’s Shelter, Mzomtsha Children’s Home, Holy Cross Children’s Home, and Ikwezi Lokusa.

54The best established programme, and the one we shall focus on, is Eluxolweni, which is part of a larger project called The Umtata Street Child Programme (USCP). The project began in 1985 with the opening of a child-care centre in Port St Johns to cater for street youth from all over Transkei who ended up on the streets of Umtata. The shelter and skills training centre was started in 1991 because of the need to expand the project to meaningfully address the problem. The USCP is basically a Christian NGO which was founded on biblical injunctions relating to uplifting the poor and oppressed and tending to their material and spiritual needs, and seeks to ensure the social transformation and reintegration of street children into society. Funded through voluntary donations from individual and donor agencies locally, nationally and internationally, as well as a state subsidy through the welfare department, the project brings together church, service clubs, business and local government structures in an effort to deal with the complex problem of street youth.

55The activities and programmes of USCP have been classified and evaluated by de Wet (1995) as follows:

  1. Outreach and street education which hinge on the intervention strategy whereby the project staff go out to the streets every Wednesday afternoon to counsel street children, intimate them of the opportunities offered at Eluxolweni, and encourage them to leave the streets. In this way, the children enter the programme voluntarily. The outreach also has other services for street children, including those who are not resident in the programme. These include legal aid to children who have problems with the law provided by lawyers for human rights, as well as medical services and advice, de Wet (1995: 13) believes that the outreach component of the programme is ‘a very effective way of contacting the children on their own turf’, although she noted that the Wednesday visits to the streets were no longer regular.

  2. The provision of shelter, clothing, food and health care provide the main attractions for most of the hungry and unkempt youth. Dormitories and sleeping units are provided in Umtata and Port St Johns which house between 60-75 youth annually. The children are fed with a balanced diet thrice daily under the guidance of a dietician, and they receive clothing.

  3. Education, the major part of which consists of formal and bridge education, is provided and some sport and recreational activities take place.

  4. Skills training, is provided in: gardening, domestic chores, problem-solving, trade skills, and technical skills in welding and leather work.

  5. Social work services provided include counselling, home visits, and reintegration of children into their families, as well as after care, de Wet (1995: 15) notes that family welfare and development is not given sufficient attention, and that the centre would be more effective with a full-time social worker.

  6. Spiritual development which entails teaching the children the tenets of Christian living.

56Eluxolweni caters for over 150 street youth annually, and has reunited many with their families over the years. It has done well in furthering understanding which has gone some way in liberating children on the programme from ignorance and marginalization, offering protection from child labour, police harassment, sexual abuse and health hazards, and helping the children to find their identity and integrity (de Wet, 1995). In general, the project has received positive evaluation for bringing the plight of street children to the attention of the community, and enjoys a great deal of support in the Transkei region and nationally.

57Nonetheless, the project has been less than adequate in a number of areas. First, its services are more or less restricted to the children in the programme, and this leaves out the greater majority of those on the streets. This invariably makes the return to street life an attractive option (a situation where a majority of the street children are in the programme would make the street less attractive).

58It is, therefore, not surprising that there is a fairly high rate of return to the streets. Some of the children who went back to the street from Eluxolweni complained of strict rules which gave little freedom, and abuse by senior residents, although it was apparent that the major reason was that they wanted to return to their peers outside. A more comprehensive outreach programme which also addresses children who are still on the street is, therefore, recommended.

59Another shortcoming of the project is the rather superficial and decontextualized understanding of the whole phenomenon of street youth. The evaluation by de Wet (1995) points to the facts that the overall conception of the project is too Western and not sensitive to the African cultural context; and that most board members have a superficial knowledge of the socio-economic and political realities of the Transkei, especially the rural communities where most of the children originate, and the circumstances which force children onto the streets.

60Clearly, there is a need to place the problem of street youth within the larger social system. This was referred to earlier as ‘approaching the problem as a systemic variable’. This would change the focus from its practical and curative aspect to the preventive realm, which at present is generally and wrongly regarded as being the responsibility of the state.

61It may be true that the project and similar projects cannot single-handedly turn around the predisposing social, economic and political factors, and that the greater responsibility for this lies with the state, but much more than a compassionate cure can be effected, for example, by initiating multidisciplinary studies of the problem in the Transkei; by initiating public enlightenment programmes which target the community as a whole, rather than street youth or affected families alone, and by advocating for government to pay greater attention to the problem. The need for advocacy which would help to place the problem of street youth on the political agenda cannot be overemphasized, because, as Yeich (1996: 112) notes, in relation to homelessness which is one aspect of street living, ‘That the causes of homelessness can be traced to changes in the structure of… society attests to the political nature of the issue’. It is reassuring that USCP board members are represented in national street children committees such as the Residential Child Care Forum and the National Children’s Rights Committee, from where they can join hands with similar agencies to embark on advocacy outreach on a national scale. It is regrettable, however, that these national bodies have so far not sufficiently politicized the issue of street youth.

62The active participation and empowerment of the children themselves in advocating their needs is required. The provision of legal aid by Lawyers for Human Rights is a right step in this direction, as is the involvement of resident children in decision-making on issues that affect them. The children in Eluxolweni take part in weekly house meetings where they are encouraged to express their views freely, and to determine the Saturday jobs around the centre in which they will assist. The importance of the latter is underlined by de Wet (1995: 5):

The children make important decisions while on the street. It has, therefore, become a way of life. The programme will attract even more children from the street if it is obvious to those still on the street that they will retain the right to make decisions for themselves.

63In the past, failure to involve the youth accounted for the high turnover of those, especially senior children, returning to the streets. At one point the project board was forced to threaten the withdrawal of ‘very troublesome youth in their early twenties’ on the grounds that they had outgrown the services provided at the centre. The situation improved with the introduction of participatory structures.

  • 12 PR has three main components: research to obtain adequate understanding of, and possible solutions (...)

64Again, it is obvious that a participatory/empowerment scheme cannot work if the greater majority of youth on the streets are not involved. My interaction with them and their excitement over the prospect of a participatory-empowerment approach to the problem of street youth convinced me of the need to initiate a more elaborate scheme along the lines of participatory research (PR) advocated by Yeich (1994, 1996). Participatory research has been defined as ‘an integrated activity that combines social investigation, educational work and action with the ultimate goal of structural transformation and improvement of the lives of those involved’.12 Yeich adopted this method to organize the Homeless Persons Union whose objective was to wage a political struggle against homelessness.

65The USCP (or any other agency) can assist in a similar way by helping to organize networks of old and present residents of the streets that can provide the necessary education, through collaboration with progressive youth organizations like the Eastern Province Youth Council. This project would involve intimating the children with the rights of the child embodied in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), to which South Africa is a signatory, and mobilizing them to demand those rights. Something similar to this was done in 1994 by the prisoners’ rights association which was organized to assert the rights of prisoners in the country, including the right to vote. The major advantage of this approach is that it would transform the issue of street children into a political issue, which the state would then be forced to address. This advantage partly takes care of the reservation of some authorities that political advocacy would have the unintended consequence of making heroes of street children. Those who insist that the basic responsibility for child care and upbringing lies with the family need also to be reminded that a good number of street youth come from adverse or abusive family backgrounds. The state needs to intervene in such cases.

66The fact that the UN Convention makes the state the main protector of the child and his or her rights makes this more relevant. For example, article 20 of the Convention states that ‘A child temporarily or permanently deprived of his or her environment, or in whose best interests cannot be allowed to remain in that environment, shall be entitled to special protection and assistance provided by the state’; while article 28 affirms the right of the child to universal primary education and access to higher education. The state, therefore, has an important role to play, and cannot shirk its responsibility just because voluntary agencies are already working to address the problems of the street child. Efforts to address the issue on the grounds of compassion have achieved a lot, but they are limited because they can neither deal with the deeper systemic roots of the problem, nor exercise the authority required to deal with them.

67Another area that is not adequately addressed by Eluxolweni and other similar centres is the involvement of street youth in crime. Giving them formal and bridge education and training them in various skills, with a view to helping them become employable is one way of reorienting them, but what of those children who reject such solutions and/or others who have become addicted to glue and other drugs, or who just simply prefer the fast and easy means of getting money? A fairly different approach is needed. This would involve working closely with the police to identify such children and the semi-gangs they belong to, setting them apart from ‘innocent’ street children (even in police cells), and offering them liberation education before training them in relevant skills.

68All that has been said could be summarized in the following way. The solution to the problem of street youth in Umtata, in particular, and the country in general, requires more than a curative solution, borne out of compassion which assumes that the phenomenon is a manifestation of a temporary dislocation. It requires a root or holistic approach which addresses its more entrenched sources and, therefore, searches for solutions at the systemic level. As Yeich (1996: 112) argues in relation to homelessness, ‘Contrary to the claims of victims – blaming researchers and politicians, homelessness cannot be solved by changing the characteristics of homeless people. It can only be solved by addressing the problem’s root, structural sources’.

69The approach demanded has both local (Transkei/Umtata) and national dimensions, but much depends on the priority given to the issue on the national political agenda. This calls for a great deal of advocacy and would require a more creative participatory – mobilizational approach that involves the street children themselves who will take their fate into their own hands by struggling to claim their rights to protection and proper upbringing. As much as possible, the emphasis should continue to be on reintegrating children into their families and society. The state has to take the responsibility for tackling the systemic factors which give rise to, and accentuate the problem of street children.


70South Africa is one of the most urbanized and industrialized countries in Africa. It is estimated that by the year 2000 the country would attain 60 per cent urbanization (Mostert and Lotter, 1990). If the present trends of rising unemployment, marked social inequalities which are most dramatized in the urban areas, family breakdown (divorce, serial marriage, single parenthood, illegitimate children), rising inflation, increase in slum dwellings, a high population growth rate, and poverty persist or get worse, as they are likely to, then the problem of street youth can be expected, not only to increase (cf. Maree, 1991), but to become much more serious in terms of the involvement of the youth in violent crimes and other urban pathologies. The need to urgently address the problem of street youth in the country cannot, therefore, be overemphasized, and fortunately there are indications that serious efforts are already being made in that direction.

71This study has given proposals on how this can be done. More importantly, however, the study has shown that the problem is not restricted to the major industrialized cities such as Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban, which is the impression one gets from reading the influential works on street children in South Africa. Largely because Umtata and several other black urban areas in the former homelands have been neglected in the mainstream studies, the problem of street children in these areas has received less attention. Yet the problem is not less serious in these areas. As part of the whole process of rectifying the structural inequalities introduced by the previous apartheid regime, there is a need to pay closer attention to black cities which, as this study shows, stand a good chance of reducing the flow of street youth to the major cities, if the problems of street children are well addressed at this level.



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1 I wish to express my gratitude to the following for their assistance in this project. Lwazi Lushaba, my very able and resourceful research assistant. Captain CP. Sapula of SAPS, Umtata, Dr Heather Ferguson-Brown and T.T. Kuse of the department of Social Work, University of Transkei, and K. Landingwe and the staff of Eluxolweni, the Umtata Street Child Programme.

2 ‘Throwaways’ or ‘pushouts’ are children who have been abandoned or orphaned, and for whom relations and local councils do not wish to take responsibility, while runaways are children who have decided to escape from home to live on the street (Swart, 1987: 34).

3 Runaways/throwaways are basically terms used in the USA, while the of/on differentiation was developed in Latin America.

4 For example, estimates of the number of street children in South Africa has ranged from as far apart as 5000 by Schurink (1993: 2) to 9000 by Richter (1991), even though both believe South Africa’s street children are concentrated in Johannesburg, Cape Town and other large cities, and 1 million on the street (including children working on farms) and 10,000 of the street by Swart-Kruger and Donald (1994: 109).

5 The following description of the life of the township child in the apartheid era has been presented by Chikane (1986: 342-43): The world of the township child is extremely violent. It is a world made up of teargas, bullets, whippings, detentions, and deaths on the streets… It is a world where parents and friends get carried away in the night to be interrogated. It is a world where people simply disappear, where parents are assassinated, and houses are petrol-bombed. Such is the environment of the township child…

6 Three ‘high-risk’ families were identified: isolated nuclear family and single-parent family; families in which violence is commonplace; and families in which parents have divorced and/or remarried.

7 This is contrary to Schurink’s (1993: 36) attribution of the absence of legislation on street children in South Africa to ‘the notion that a street child does not differ from any other child in need of care and therefore should not be treated any differently’.

8 Contrast this, for example, with the USA where the Runaway Youth Act of 1974 provided for federal funds to establish temporary shelter and provide maintenance resources, counselling services and research programmes. There was also the Missing Children’s Assistance Act of 1984 which (re)authorized funding for services to homeless children and the coordination of federal, state and local programmes to recover missing children.

9 Redding (1992: 72) cites a white speaker at a town meeting in 1886 who stated that the black location ‘was only a harbour and a refudge [sic] for vagrants and bad characters and a hotbed for disease’.

10 The figure for the then Western Cape was 813; Eastern Cape, 578; and Natal, 367; (South African Outlook, January/February 1992: 9).

11 Although the statistics are fairly reliable, there is some discontinuity in record-keeping. Records for 1992 and 1993, and for some months in the other years could not be found. Moreover, with the integration of the former homeland police force into the South African Police Service, changes were introduced into crime entry recording: new codes were introduced, and many crimes were disaggregated.

12 PR has three main components: research to obtain adequate understanding of, and possible solutions to the problem; dialogic education whose goal is popular rather than expert knowledge; and transfer of knowledge to participants.

Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1. Characteristics of Street Youths in South Africa
Fichier image/jpeg, 848k
Titre Table 2. Characteristics of Street Youths in Umtata
Légende Note 10 : Since the homelands policy was abolished and Umtata is no longer a capital city (Bisho was made capital of the new Eastern Cape Province contrary to the expectations of most Transkeians), it has lost much of its attraction. It nevertheless retains various government departments and remains a commercial centre, in spite of widespread complaints that the Transkei region as a whole is undergoing an economic recession.
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Titre Table 3. Selected Crime Statistics for Umtata
Légende Note a : Figures are only for the months of August and OctoberNote b : The figures for 1996 do not include entries for DecemberNote c : Housebreaking on premises occupied by whites was usually distinguished from housebreaking on premises occupied by blacks, the latter constituted 80-90 per cent of reported cases.Note d : Figures are only for the months of February, July and AugustNote e : The figure is for both armed and ordinary robbery, excluding armed robbery of vehiclesNote f : This includes armed robbery of vehiclesNote g : This includes burglary on public premisesNa : not available
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© IFRA-Nigeria, 1997

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