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South Africa’s children: back to death now the party is over

Published 29th July 2010 - 13 comments - 25345 views -

The sight of a suffering child is not easy to forget. It makes you feel undeservedly lucky, impotent and useless. Starving and sick kids keep staring at you from a TV screen or the pages of magazines and newspapers on a daily basis, but holding a five-year old HIV-positive in your arms, knowing that she won’t probably make it to her 6th birthday, is a completely different story.

Photo by

Seeing cheerful kids playing and laughing is also a touching experience. It makes you feel at peace with the world. Their happiness and enthusiasm is contagious. You see them everyday playing in the schoolyard next to your office or eating chocolate ice-cream with their parents in the restaurant downstairs from your place. The sight of a kid who is still able to laugh and play even when surrounded by pain and violence, though, has a quite stronger impact on your mind and soul.

Photo by Jamie McDonald, Getty Images

The first picture in this blog post is not that of a 5-year old child living with AIDS, at least not the one I met.  I didn’t have my camera with me six years ago, when I visited an orphanage in Johannesburg where a courageous nun along with a couple of restless collaborators took care of several abandoned children they recovered from the streets of Soweto, Africa’s largest township in the outskirts of the city.

Among them, four little kids seemed to get more attention from their care-takers. All between three and five years of age, they played and laughed just as any other child in the institute. Only a couple of months beforehand, though, they were dying alone in a slum, their little bodies ravaged by diarrhea and malnutrition and weakened by the HIV/AIDS virus.

I wasn’t there to help, at least not to help with the kids. I was just a trainee-journalist accompanying a very experienced cameraman on a story he found and which was then rejected by Reuters’ London office. Four orphan children living with AIDS in South Africa, the country with the largest amount of HIV-positive people, was not newsworthy. Saddened and thrilled as we may be, we could not say the opposite.

Years later, with the FIFA World Cup approaching and the world’s attention on South Africa shifting from HIV/AIDS and crime to soccer, disadvantaged children started to enjoy some visibility on foreign media.

They were poor children in violent environments, but all of them were happy and made readers and TV-watchers want to visit South Africa, where children kept smiling and people seemed to have no worries besides wanting to be part of such an event.

Those kids were barefoot, thin and dirty. They were maybe too poor to afford a real soccer ball, but they would all play football and smile. In some cases, they were enrolled in some development project in the township where they lived, where NGOs and volunteers from across the world would even give them uniforms and organize tournaments.

They would dream of becoming the next world champions, although none of them would be able to afford even the cheapest ticket to see their idols play in the beautiful stadiums which were still being built.

In some cases, these huge architectural monsters were replacing smaller sports structures, where kids would sometimes watch rugby matches or even play sports, but hey, you cannot let the champions play in such places.

The World Cup is over now, and it’s time to check on those cheerful kids and see how they are doing. Are they still playing football in the slums? Some of them maybe, but many others are already dead.

Reducing child mortality by two thirds is one among the Millennium Development Goals. South Africa is the first economy in the African continent, it was able to host an international event such as the FIFA World Cup, but its performance on this target has so far been unacceptably poor.

According to a report which was recently published by Countdown to 2015, an international watchdog which monitors maternal, newborn and child survival in 68 countries, South Africa’s progress in curbing child death was almost insignificant in the past ten years.

According to the 2010 Countdown to 2015 Decade Report, deaths affecting children under the age of five have decreased less than one per cent per year since 2001 and 47 out of 1000 South African babies still die before they are one year old. Almost half of these deaths, the report said, are caused by AIDS-related illnesses.

The outcomes of this study were given some relevance by media focusing on development and health, such as PlusNews, a news service on HIV/AIDS within the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, or IRIN. As this website tends to speak to a specialized public, if you read its news you were probably already aware of the fact that kids in South African slums are often too busy struggling for their lives to take part in soccer matches.

Those among them who were lucky enough to do that in the past four years had their moment of glory as they posed for pictures for the international press. Now they can be forgotten again, along with most of their peers who never made it to the cover of a magazine or a newspaper front page, because an HIV-positive child who dies in a South African slum is not newsworthy.


  • Giedre Steikunaite on 29th July 2010:

    As you say it, Tiziana: now the party is over, back to death, kids. Isn’t this what we suspected before the Cup?

  • Tiziana Cauli on 29th July 2010:

    It is Giedre, and it’s very sad facts did not prove us wrong…

  • Johan Knols on 29th July 2010:

    With all due respect, but you never thought that the WC would really change the situation in SA on such short notice, did you?

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 29th July 2010:

    No, that’s what we were saying before it and now that it ended we see we were right.

  • Tiziana Cauli on 29th July 2010:

    @Johan: I never thought it would. I expected the government to pay more attention to issues such child mortality in the past 10 years, which is a longer period than that of a world cup. It is just amazing how they managed to make people believe life for young South Africans was all about soccer and fun.

  • Johan Knols on 29th July 2010:

    Not a bad idea to make the youngsters happy for some time. It distracts from their daily misery. Unfortunately it is now back to reality.

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 29th July 2010:

    Perceptive post Tiziana. Nice grin

  • Tiziana Cauli on 29th July 2010:

    Thanks Iris smile

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 29th July 2010:

    I also like the photos.

  • Luan Galani on 29th July 2010:

    The photos are superb, but the account is better. Thanks for delivering it, Tiziana.

  • Tiziana Cauli on 29th July 2010:

    Thank you Luan! I can’t take credit for the pics though smile

  • Helena Goldon on 01st August 2010:

    Good post, Tiziana. I believe we need to balance the footage somehow though - both pictures of children in need and happy cheerful kids playing soccer - as both are African realities and the latter is also helpful as it may attract tourists smile

  • Tiziana Cauli on 01st August 2010:

    Good point Helena. I particularly liked those pictures, that’s why I picked them smile

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