The longest walk to freedom: from the perspective of the homeless

The longest walk to freedom: from the perspective of the homeless

Opinion article by Kelebogile Boleu and Jean-Paul Pophaim, Lecturers at the Department of Criminology, University of the Free State and Governing board members at Kidz Care Trust 

Freedom Day commemorates the first democratic elections held in post-apartheid South Africa on 27 April 1994. This day reminds us of the immeasurable sacrifices made by individuals and groups to help break the chains of unjust segregation and bring about the promotion of equality, fairness and basic human rights for all South Africans.

This day not only marks our emancipation as South Africans, but reminds us of the constitutional promise of peace, hope and a brighter tomorrow for everyone. Over the past few years, many South Africans have begun to question this monumental rise to freedom, with all of the challenges we have been facing as a country – having one of the highest youth unemployment rates globally, social challenges associated with housing, education and the lack of access to basic needs such as food, electricity and water.

We are 28 years into democracy and some individuals have yet to experience freedom and enjoy their basic human rights to the fullest. A prime example of this would be our country’s homeless population. Forced to exist in the most marginal and rundown conditions, the homeless are often treated as second-class citizens, criminalised, ostracised and deprived of their most basic human rights on a daily basis.

The fallacy of freedom for the homeless

At the dawn of democracy, it was assumed that freedom and human rights for all would be an automatic process. However, this remains untrue in the lives of the marginalised and destitute. The homeless face many barriers in society regarding access to their basic human rights and services to acknowledge and support a life of dignity, equality and respect.

Based on a devalued social status and the stigma attached to life on the street, many homeless people are forced to exist in spaces devoid of their innate right to freedom as alluded to in a previous publication. The homeless face immense challenges when seeking assistance from SA Police Service officials when they attempt to make use of healthcare services and other social service sectors.

The discomfort they create for other members of society is inhumanely vocalised and enforced in various ‘public spaces’ – where their unwelcome presence is solidified by the treatment they are subjected to. Street-living youth are deprived of their childhoods, bearing the challenges of a broken society – unable to enjoy their youth, attend school, play with friends and realise their potential to be the leaders of tomorrow.

When we see children begging on the street, we often ask ourselves – where are their parents and why are they not in school? Or we simply assume they are naughty or deviant and probably do not know the value and importance of education.

The majority of the broader society are quick to judge and hardly ever go a step further to consider the ‘bigger picture’. The reality is that most of these children have no adult figure or support system in place and as a result often turn to unconventional survival strategies which include various petty crimes and sex work just to secure a meal.

The last thing on their minds is going to school and even if they find a school that is willing to accept them, many do not have the necessary documentation required at admission (birth certificates amongst others).

Although we do have a few good policies in place for children, the situation for street-living youth remains bleak – as many of them do not fit the narrative of a school-going child and as a result face severe cases of marginalisation, discrimination, bullying and unfair treatment by peers and educators alike. Despite these challenges, organisations such as Kidz Care Trust (KCT) remain committed to continue advocating for the rights of the child.

 Efforts by Civil Organisations

Civil organisations in South Africa have always played an instrumental role in righting the wrongs of our unequal society. Many organisations continue to pick up the slack and assist in creating a more dignified life, one that is aligned with the premise of our democratic Constitution.

To draw focus to our involvement and affiliation with KCT, since its establishment, the trust has been responsible for rendering life-changing services to children living and working on the street with the purpose of reuniting them with their families and communities.

Due to the ongoing violation of children’s rights and freedom, KCT focuses on restoring hope where there is hopelessness, distrust and disrespect by a sometimes, unforgiving society confronted with children living and surviving on the street.

 To raise awareness and promote the fight for equal rights and absolute freedom for all street-living youth and adults, we thought it would be fitting to share some of the most heart-warming success stories achieved by the trust to date.

Currently one of the boys at KCT is completing his matric, another has been placed in a high school and several others are enrolled at a nearby primary school – with one grade 7 pupil achieving perfect and high scores for his assessments – proving once again that anything is possible with a bit of support. For the purposes of the next story, an alias has been used to protect the identity of the individual involved:

A young man fighting for his right to be a responsible and contributing citizen

Tristan’s story is one filled with hardships and challenges that stretch far beyond the imagination of the average South African citizen. Through hard work, sheer willpower and the determination to succeed – Tristan managed to overcome the adversity that started at the age of just three, when he was abandoned by his family.

Tristan was placed into foster care, only for his foster parent to pass away and he ended up in the tentative care of an elderly neighbour. Tristan knew that he did not have much time to live with the neighbour and decided to move to the street at the age of 10.

This is where he crossed paths with KCT. Tristan was part of a group of street children who begged at the traffic lights near Mimosa Mall in Bloemfontein during peak times. While he found refuge with this group of children, he started sniffing glue and smoking cannabis (dagga). He battled the cold, faced starvation and violent attacks while on the street.

Tristan moved into the KCT Child and Youth Care Centre when he was 12 years old, initially struggling to adapt to the rules and routines of the centre. As a result, he got into a lot of altercations with other boys at the centre. His issues with substances (glue and cannabis) and claiming that he felt like a failure due to his challenges at school, led to him running away from the centre a number of times.

The children’s court then ordered Tristan to attend Jimmie Roos School. As things started to improve, he turned 18 and the system no longer had room for him. He couldn’t find employment and decided to move in with a friend in a township which was when he was revisited by his previous challenges with substance abuse. Eventually, unable to cope, he contacted KCT and they decided to include him in their youth programme – where he was taught cooking, gardening, cleaning and work etiquette skills.

After acquiring his identity document, Tristan was enrolled for an in-service training programme at Kopano Nokeng Conference Centre. The person who assisted him was so impressed by his performance and ambition to succeed that Tristan was later offered part-time employment as a waiter and to assist with organising events. Today, Tristan has full-time employment as a caretaker and also takes care of his 93-year-old grandfather.

This is one of many stories KCT can share with pride – showing that a rough start does not always mean a rough ending. On days such as this it is important to reflect on the struggles that led to the celebration of Freedom Day and to remember what freedom truly means and that it should be a reality for all.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about” ~ Wendy Mass.


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