07 March 2012

Cape Town: A City of Contrasts - Some Thoughts After Reading UNICEF's Report

Cape Town has been in my thoughts since UNICEF launched its report, The State of the World's Children 2012: Children in an Urban World last week. (You can see my overview here.) The report examined the challenges faced by the urban poor. I have seen inequalities in a couple of cities. In Shanghai, the modern skyscrapers contrast dramatically with the older, and more run down areas. In my own city, London, people complain of the "Postcode Lottery" - where access to and quality of services, like education and health and social care, vary in different areas. However, I would like to look at the example of Cape Town here, as, given its history, its level of inequality is extreme. I have also learnt from some amazing people there, who are dedicating their lives to helping children living in urban poverty. 

The nature of my work in Cape Town exposed me to the many different "layers" of the city. For my work with my organisation, CHW, I went to the townships and Cape Flats - the most deprived areas. Adequate housing and sanitation systems are lacking. Parents of children who get sick may not be able to afford the bus fare to take their child to the hospital, so they do not benefit from living within close proximity to hospitals, or other services on offer in the city. Meanwhile, I was staying with a family in a quiet neighbourhood, in the suburb of Plumstead, and was also doing an internship at the South African Human Rights Commission in Cape Town's central business district. I later returned to do some research projects at the University of the Western Cape, in Bellville. This all felt worlds apart from the townships and Cape Flats.

Some of my photos from Cape Town:


Top left: a home in a township; Top right: the view from the end of my road in Plumstead; 
Bottom left: Children at the Cape Flats. This was in the middle of the day and they were not at school;
Bottom right: View of the centre of Cape Town from Table Mountain.

Violence is a major issue in Cape Town. The Mexican research group Seguridad, Justicia y Paz recently carried out a study based on murder rates in cities and named Cape Town as the most dangerous city outside the Americas.  (Latin America accounted for forty out of the fifty most dangerous cities in the world). The study and list can be downloaded in Spanish here, or see this English article from the Epoch Times. I always got the feeling, from my friends in Cape Town, that Johannesburg was the more dangerous city, although I have no firsthand experience of life there. The South African.com reported that some Cape Town authorities questioned the sources used for the report, and argued that other areas, such as Port Elizabeth and East London (in South Africa, not the UK!) were more violent than Cape Town. Chapter three of UNICEF's report discusses various urban challenges, including violence. It quotes a study which shows that in more unequal societies, people suffer from the experience of relative deprivation, which leads to high rates of crime and violence. 

My organisation, CHW, works with a creche in the area of Retreat, run for children from the townships and Cape Flats. Its founder, Rita, told me that it is important that she provides this service as there are a lot of mothers who need to work, but have nowhere to leave their children. She also works hard to give the children the best start to life through education and providing food for them. When she has funds, she takes the children on trips. I joined her one day, when she was taking some of the children to eat at the chain restaurant, Spur. Rita explained that she wanted the children to have these experiences so that they would realise that there were better things beyond the immediate environment where they are living, so they could strive to reach them as they got older, instead of giving up and staying where they are. Rita has recently opened a second creche.

Some of our other partner organisations work to help the urban poor in other ways. The Future Factory runs sports programmes in schools and holds other sports events - as this can build the children's confidence and also keeps them off the streets and away from criminality and gangs. Its founder, Anne, works tirelessly everyday on these programmes and also supports feeding programmes in townships and helps creches and schools in the most disadvantaged areas of the city. We, at CHW, are also hoping to support the Sarah Fox Children's Convalescent Hospital in Athlone. Children who have had operations or suffered from serious illnesses go there to recover. The staff told me that the children would not be able to recover at home, as the conditions in which they lived were so bad, that it is likely the children would become more sick. The children stay at Sarah Fox until they are strong enough to return home.

Anne running a Future Factory sports event for teenagers who are living in townships and the Cape Flats.

CHW supports projects in Romania too, and the local organisations we work with, that help the Roma population, also have to respond to the challenges of inequality. Chapter three of UNICEF's report gives a case study about the isolation of Roma children in Romania, which illustrates further issues of marginalised children.

UNICEF's report said that statistics often compare children living in rural and urban areas. These figures hide the problems faced by those living in urban poverty, as they include data from richer areas of the same city too. However, for people like Rita, Anne and the staff at the Sarah Fox Hospital, these children are not some hidden statistic - they are the children they work with everyday, in the hope of providing them with more resources in the present, and more opportunities for a better future. We can all do something - whether it is raising awareness of the problems, or finding an initiative in our local cities to volunteer with, or help in other ways, or supporting a project in a city further away. UNICEF has brought the issue to our attention and now it is time to act, just like Rita, Anne and the Sarah Fox staff have been doing.

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