And do not hinder them

We hardly think of children as agents of change. At the height of 1980s apartheid repression in South Africa, a group of activists did and gave them the tool of print.

Children of Soweto. Image via UN Photo on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed.

In an atmosphere of suffocatingly thick oppression on the southern tip of Africa, a group of anti-apartheid organizers gathered in 1979 to launch the Children’s Movement (CM). At the time, South Africa’s apartheid regime led a blanket assault on all Black opposition. Then prime minister PW Botha’s fears of student mobilization, labor organization, and the Black Consciousness Movement motivated the suppression or outright banning of resistance against the state. For children, this meant removing an element of critical thought at a crucial stage of development. 

The CM was initiated by adult activists. Importantly, it started from the analysis rooted in observations from local communities: that children in working-class and impoverished circumstances are often left to fend and care for themselves. A precarious and extractive labor market, fractured family units, and various symptoms of socio-economic ills such as substance abuse and gangsterism made adequate child care almost impossible. As movement organizers noted: “our children today live in a world that makes it very difficult for them to be healthy, independent, and caring people.” Therefore, the CM’s founders decided to place children in situations where they were encouraged to interpret and express their surroundings. In the words of the co-founder and ex-political prisoner Marcus Solomon: “the children have all the answers, they just need the tools.” 

One such tool, developed by Solomon and his comrades, was the CM’s official newsletter, Voice of the Children/Iswi Labantwana/Die Kinderstem. A growing archive of this literary organ—alongside other histories, reports, and media content produced by the movement—is accessible on the movement’s official website and a digital guide in the form of a teaching tool can be found on the site of Revolutionary Papers. The publication itself helped reproduce a core organizational principle, namely that the young members have agency and should therefore write and collate the journal. This allowed children access to a public platform, and offered them a sense of control over how they are represented in the media and the public. The ongoing practice of the movement drew them into the sphere of social engagement, against the feeling that they are abstracted from the social and political activities spoken of in the news, or by the state. Here was a newsletter with relatable matters shared by other African children and youth.

One of the initial issues of Voice of the Children, released in 1987.

Solomon and the CM structured their work around radically uplifting the agency of young people. The idea was to teach children to question, and how to assist themselves in their day-to-day tasks while encouraging knowledge transfer and kinship. It was hoped that this would shift the individualism embedded in a society wedded to capitalism

Front cover of Voice of the Children, January 1993.

Between 1986 and 2017, the CM published 75 issues of Voice of the Children, featuring articles mainly in English, but also in isiXhosa and Afrikaans. Its circulation was primarily in South Africa’s Western Cape province, but also beyond (for example, Namibia). Copies were distributed through the mail or via a facilitator—often community members, mothers, teachers, and older members of the organization. The members who were children operated in groups and took on specific roles such as treasurer, secretary, speaker, and so forth. “The children were always growing up,” as Solomon would often say. Roles and tasks had to be kept adaptable to children becoming teenagers taking into account that some of them lived in far-flung areas of the country.

Children’s General Council of the Children’s Movement, Uluntu Centre, Gugulethu, February 1999.
4th Annual Child-to-Child Conference, December 2001.

Voice of the Children contained writing by young people on a variety of topics, including human rights, housing, and child abuse expressed both in prose and poetry. The movement promotes a philosophy of respect and care through a number of programs focused on health, the environment, media, food sovereignty, youth, integrated community projects, and understanding the legal system. Along with conducting several campaigns such as those on clean water, washing hands, anti-bullying, AIDS awareness, and anti-xenophobia. Notable is the Girl Child Campaign, which has since evolved into the Girl Child organization, with a regularly dedicated excerpt in the newsletter called “Soul Sista.

“Soul Sista” the Girl Child Organization’s dedicated excerpt in Voice of the Children.

The production of the Voice of the Children has been coordinated by the Children’s Resource Centre (CRC). In addition to the periodical, the CRC has produced literature on non-competitive games, how-to guides on starting an organizational children’s group, health center or garden, and many do-it-yourself manuals on poster-making and simple cures for common ailments. The CRC allocates materials for the CM’s education-with-production program, where members construct sustainable items such as reusable sanitary pads and heat-retaining wonder bags. These items, if made in surplus, are sent to children’s groups in isolated areas. All of the activities, workshops, connections, and crossovers are documented in the newsletter creating a collated visual illustration of the wide-ranging activities that the movement engages in.

Conditions continue to warrant the nurturing of these skills. Children are often overlooked as sources of action.  A conscientizing education, as outlined in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, is critical to shift the status quo. As Freire argues: “Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both.

Curated and illustrated by the child members, the poster includes the values and aspects the movement feels are important.

Central to the concerns of the CM are the ways that many histories expose a consistent lack of the compassion humans have toward one another, fueled incessantly by exploitative consumerism and racial discrimination. The Voice of the Children aims to articulate a different way of being in the world, to oneself, and to each other.

Further Reading

Wyuyata’s story

While Sierra Leone has come very far in its fight against sexual violence the question of safeguarding victims especially children needs urgent attention.

Children of Gorongosa

One of the photographs in a new series “Children of the Mountain” by academic and journalist Howard French. The  children live in and near the Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique. French was there reporting a story on sociobiologist …