“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”Nelson Mandela
As political and economic tides change across the African continent, often followed by waves of violence and uncertainty, so communities are uprooted and people are forced to leave their homes in search of greener pastures. At the tip of Africa, Johannesburg stands as a beacon of opportunity. Its reputation for discrimination and violence is well known, but its bright lights are often blinding to the reality and hardship of those whose every day is a struggle for survival.
Each day thousands of forced migrants flood into Johannesburg in search of a better life. Many have risked their lives to cross South Africa’s borders, and in their desperation resort to the only accommodation they can afford: the slum buildings of the inner city of Johannesburg.
The slum buildings are vertical squatter camps – far more dangerous, far more over crowded, where the fight for survival is brutal and unrelenting.
Amidst the darkness and the squalor, you will find children – who bring light into the darkest of places.
Some children have travelled the long, perilous journey to South Africa, however many of the children are born in Johannesburg. Often it is the mothers who are left to protect and raise their children, and with the limited resources they have, life in the slum buildings is a daily struggle for survival.
The challenges that these children face are universal: health, education, security, nourishment and growth, but the intense social pressure of being raised in the slum buildings of Johannesburg soon hijacks their innocence, as they quickly grow up to be astute and streetwise kids.
They say “It takes a village to raise a child”, and despite the dire living conditions that the poorest of the inner city face, communities are created, friendships are made, loyalty reaches beyond blood ties, and the children are raised by a continuous flow of helping hands, that give of themselves, for the love of children.
Informal nursery schools are created, as well as official kindergartens that serve the needs of the city’s poor and destitute. They provide a safe haven whilst their parents seek work during the day.
But in the shadows of Johannesburg, not all cries for help are heard. Not all children feel loved, nor are they cared for. Not all are safe, and some face abuse and suffering beyond our cruellest imaginings, as violence is lived and replanted into the lives of the children, and the country thereby begins to rot at its core.
Bishop Paul Verryn, a Methodist Minister who has committed his life to fighting for the marginalised and destitute of the inner city of Johannesburg, asks the question:
“What happens if the future leader of this country happens to be in this building right at this moment as a child? That puts a completely different colour on what we’re doing. We have got to be so careful. I must tell you that there are some children in this building that are as sharp as you can imagine. Now we hold sway on their futures. Their brilliance is not going to end up in the rubbish bin that is for sure. How is it going to be capitalised?”