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Durban is known for its beautiful beaches and its sunny skies. Saranel Benjamin, however, argues that life in Durban in not all that rosy, especially for street children.

I’ve been walking the streets of Durban with my friend and co-researcher. We’ve been walking from the beachfront to the workshop looking for street children. We walk through alleyways with names I didn’t even know existed in a city I have lived in all my life. I see things that I have read about but never seen up close, in my life. I see things that I know a modern society like ours should not be having in its midst.

Our brief is specific. We have to find street children for our research. But they cannot be any street children – it has to be street children that survive by scavenging in refuse bins for food. I have seen tons of research done on all aspects of street children - from their survival strategies, HIV/Aids, the impact on the family system, to the psychological impact on children who live on the street. Many researchers have walked this path that we are walking. I am certain that they too felt their souls shattering as they talked to these children.

Every night I am haunted by the faces of the children I meet during the day. Their stories weigh heavy on my heart and when I close my eyes I see their hungry, pained, desperate faces. I want to hug them all, save them all. I am riddled with guilt with every spoonful of food I put into my mouth, for the roof I have over my head, and the warm bed I have every night. I panic when it starts to rain because I think of Thabo, Senzo and all the other children who are sleeping on pavements with no shelter over their heads, getting drenched to the bone - six children sharing one tattered blanket. I look at the time. It is about 5pm. I know that the children will be going out, like stealth-hunters, spreading through the shadows of the city, scavenging in bins for food.

But my sadness comes most from how, as the human race, we have failed our children. As a society, supposedly built on humanness, we have sacrificed our children. We look at the children on the street and we don’t give them a glance because we rationalize that they are not our own. We are the adults, the grown-ups, the custodians of the children of our society. We brought them into this world and gave them life. As the grown-ups we have a duty to care for them, all children, not just our own. Most of the children we spoke to were forced onto the streets because their parents had died and/or their families were so destitute that these children had to go out onto the street either to take care of themselves or to send money back home to their poverty-stricken families. When the economics and the politics of our country becomes so inhumane that our only answer to our children is to thrust them out of their homes to fend for themselves, we should know then that our time, as the humane race, is over. We have become savages amidst our country’s neglect to devise a back-up plan for this catastrophe.

Recently we met Thabo, a little boy of 12. He has been on the street for just two weeks. Both his parents died and his granny couldn’t afford to take care of him and his two sisters so she sent them out of the house. He doesn’t know where his two sisters are. They got separated on the streets. He looks like a fish out of water on that sunny yet grotty part of the Durban beachfront. He should be playing on the beach, frolicking in the water. Instead he sits outside a supermarket not knowing how to go about asking these grown-up strangers for food or money. His heart hasn’t hardened enough to allow him to make that decision to steal as yet. Nor has he been integrated into any of the other packs of street children where he would be taught the skills of surviving on the street. Instead, Thabo’s broken heart and hungry stomach forces him to stick his little, innocent hands into a garbage bin and scrummage inside it with the hope that some grown-up stranger has thrown away his or her lunch. His sad, tear-streaked face made me feel ashamed that all this time I didn’t know the extent of what lay at the foot of where I lived and that in all this time, I didn’t do anything - that I lived my life as if the world, South Africa, Durban was alright.

I know that when we come back in a few weeks, Thabo will be integrated into a pack of seasoned street children. There is a greater likelihood that he will be beaten up by some of the older boys. He will definitely be introduced to the ways in which he can ease the pinching hunger in his stomach and the splitting headache by sniffing glue and/or prostituting himself to the grown-up men in big cars with big money. He will be taught how to steal. He will inevitably spend a couple of months in a jail cell.

But there is always the hope that Thabo will find his way into a pack of street children who hold the dream of making something of their lives by living honestly. Some of the boys we spoke with hold a simple ambition of earning money for their food and shelter. They do this by washing or guarding cars they know they will never get to own, let alone drive in. Or they sell trinkets and snacks to tourists or passer-bys. In this group Thabo might be able to earn just enough to keep his little hands out of the rubbish bins, his little body safe from seedy men, and his innocent life out of prison.

But even these boys find themselves living on the fringes of a safe life. For as much as these children want to escape the reality of their shitty existence, there are those grown-ups, big people, adults, custodians of children like the police, for example, who are intent on erasing our modern city landscape of the eyesore that is street children. Some of the boys on the street have reported that at least twice a week, the “Black Jacks” (police) come around and confiscate the goods that they are selling by claiming that the street children are illegal traders and do not have permits to trade. For extra good measure, just to make sure that the kick to the hungry stomach is humiliating and lasts long enough to keep the kid on his knees, the police take away their blankets and their clothes. Some of the boys have resorted to wearing all their clothes at once so that they won’t be stolen by their custodians. Although one boy said that he regularly gets stripped down to his underpants and his clothes taken away by the “Black Jacks”.

As we walk into one of the parks in the city centre, I see a boy sitting by himself under a tree. He has a defeated look on his face. He stares blankly into space. Whilst we are talking to the other boys in the park and they are showing us the papers that show that their goods have been impounded by the police, the boy gets up and joins us. He says that his stuff was taken away by the police and he can get it back if he pays the R100 fine and an additional R100 to release his goods. He holds his head like a boxer who just received a knock-out punch. My heart breaks again. For them, and for the endless cruelty that has become our society.

So here they are: the children of a lesser god, sitting in the baking heat contemplating the day’s hunt and how to get the maximum amount of food from the city’s rubbish bins to fill their hungry stomachs. They sit on drums, buckets, on the pavement that is covered in filth and grime. They sit there in the pure irony of their situation, a parody so cruel: they wear clothes that don’t belong to them that bear the brand names (Adidas and Levis T-shirts, Von Dutch belts, Nike takkies three times the size of their little feet, Polo jeans) of big multinational clothing companies that are the beneficiaries of the very system that has given us street children. They sleep in the enclave of a shop front of a building that has a mural of a happy child having fun on the beaches of Durban.

The street children have a hard night ahead of them because they have no blankets, except for Musa. He’s been on the street for 15 years, speaks fluent English and is wise enough to strike a deal with a nearby shop owner to store his blankets in the shop owner’s premises. He gives us a toothy grin as he tells us this. We admire his street smart ways as he desperately tries to pull his Levi jeans over his tattered Adidas track pants, in preparation for what the night might bring.

• Saranel Benjamin is an independent researcher from the Advocacy, Research and Training Consultancy.

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