This article was first published on the Daily Maverick.
Researching child abandonment in South Africa is akin to opening Pandora’s box. Coupled as it is with illegal, late-term abortion, the body count (when you can find them) amounts to tens of thousands. It could be many times that number; perhaps we would know if the government was prepared to count them. Criminal activity and clandestine practices are commonplace, and even for those children that survive, the result can be informal child trafficking or long-term institutionalisation.
Despite this, abandonment is not on the government’s agenda for the upcoming ‘16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women & Children‘. No statistics exist to quantify the problem, policing is confined to opening inquests instead of murder dockets, and we seem entirely devoid of strategy to end or even minimise this scourge. It begs two important questions: What becomes of our ‘lost’ boys and girls (who clearly are not in Neverland), and why do those in authority not seem to care?
The everyday horror of abandonment
Daniel* was the first abandoned child that I had met (at least knowingly). As he played on the carpet with my son, his adoptive mom told me that he had been abandoned under a highway bridge in winter. Seeing me shudder at the thought of a newborn, alone and icy cold, his mom shrugged. “He was one of the lucky ones” she said. Despite the cold conditions, Daniel was rescued by a traffic officer, and taken to a ‘place of safety’ before he died of exposure. He was also better off than the babies in the cots next to his. One had been left to drown in a longdrop, and the other was buried alive.
Since then I have heard loads of abandonment stories, but Tami’s* is one of the most shocking. Her mother aborted her when she was just over six months pregnant. Tami was born, tiny but alive, on the floor of a toilet in the hospital where her mother (a nurse) worked, and then abandoned to die in a pool of blood. She was saved by a fellow nurse, only to spend her childhood being passed around in her community. By the time she finished school, she had lived with 10 different families; she knew, but was estranged from the woman who carried her in her womb, who has never acknowledged her, or been punished for her crime. She survived to tell the tale, and she, too, considers herself fortunate. Both Daniel and Tami are testament to the everyday horror of abandonment, where the margin is so small that only the fortunate survive, and only the most fortunate avoid the long-term physical and psychological effects of a terrible, fleeting act of desperation that can either define or end a life.
These individual stories are heart-wrenching, but it is only when we explore how many stories exist (and tragically, how many do not survive to tell their tale), that we begin to understand the extent of the problem. In countless cases though, both the information, and the bodies, seem to have disappeared without a trace. It makes obtaining a full understanding of abandonment in South Africa a bit like trying to complete a thousand-piece puzzle without the picture (and possibly missing numerous pieces).
What we do know makes scary reading. For years we have been quoting one confirmed statistic about abandonment; in 2010, there were approximately 3 500 children abandoned across the country. This number is noteworthy for two reasons; first, because it is already five years old and second, it only includes survivors of abandonment. The burning question must therefore be: if 3 500 children survived, how many did not?
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