Summer 1996

Street Children in South Africa
Findings from interviews on the background of street children in Pretoria, South Africa

by Johann Le Roux


During September 1993 an investigation was launched on the lifestyle, activities, experiences, and background of street children in Pretoria, South Africa. Qualitative rather than quantitative interviews were conducted to gather as much information as possible on the total life situation and subjective experiences of these children. This article focuses specifically on their background. The responses to each interview are discussed and compared with research done in the past on South African street children.


The average age of the respondents was between 13 and 14 years as shown in Figure 1.(Figure 1 omitted) Figures in Cape Town differ only that the mean age of runaways is 12.9 years and the mean age of admission to The Homestead is 13.6 years (Cockburn, 1991). Richter (1991) found street children in South Africa to be between 7 and 18 years of age, with the majority between 13 and 16. Richter (1991) further found that the ages of street children in poor Third World countries (11 to 16 years) differ significantly from those in rich First World countries (older than 16 years). Linda Zingaro, a director of an agency in Vancouver, Canada, which serves the needs of street children in a First World country, confirms Richter's findings: "The kids that I predominantly deal with are between 15 and 16 and up to 24 or 25" (Zingaro, 1988, p. 9).

A quote from Schaefer (1989) depicts the life of a street child: "As a bitter highveld winter wind whips through the suburbs of Johnnesburg, ten-year-old Moses, huddled in the doorway of a shop in Hillbrow, pulls another piece of cardboard over his body and takes a sniff from his glue bottle, hoping it will block out the cold and bring him some sleep" (p. 19).


All the street children involved in the present investigation were of African origin and all were boys. According to Ross (1991, p. 70), the street child phenomenon in South Africa is merely the outcome of the political system of racial segregation that has been in place since the 19408. Street children are simply described as the victims of the former policy of apartheid. Ross illustrates her statement as follows: "The vast majority of an estimated 9,000 street children in South Africa are black. There are virtually no white street children in South Africa, but there are 10,000 white children in 160 state-registered and subsidized children's homes. In contrast, there are no state- administered children's homes for African children in the urban areas. The 12 existing private homes accommodate just under 1,000 African children. Although the existing 11 places of safety for African children can accommodate 1,400 children, only 700 children were harbored there during 1991."

The present ratio of Africans to whites in South Africa is approximately 5:1. If the white community produces 10,000 children in need of care, the statistical projection is that there are at least 50,000 black youths in need of care. If one considers the present high levels of violence and poverty in the black townships of South Africa, this projection of needy black children seems to be unrealistically low (Le Roux, 1993).

Ross (1991) reached the following conclusions: "If it is self-evident why there are no white street children, it is also obvious why there are so many black street children. White children in need of social care in South Africa have been adequately provided for by the community and by the state. Black children in need of social care have been sorely neglected.... South Africa's street children are an uncomfortable reminder of this country's racial legacy: they are yet more of apartheid's victims" (p. 70).

According to Hickson and Gaydon (1989), "What is unique about South African street children is the role that apartheid ideology has played in their lives.... For this reason Johannesburg's (black)'twilight children' must be located within a political context" (p. 85).

Swart (1988) noted: "Street children in Johannesburg are almost exclusively black children; a few are colored.' This is partly because, despite the fad that black people outnumber whites by 5:1 in South Africa, racially segregated institutional care facilities for children are disproportionately provided at a ratio of 9:200" (p. 34).

Although the above remarks reflect the problematic situation of the contemporary black South African child, drastic reforms have taken place since the former State President F.W. de Klerk's opening address in Parliament on February 2, 1990. These reforms will eventually also improve the black child's situation. The economic, political, and social reform process is under way and is making a positive contribution to the emergence of a nonracial, democratic society, committed to uplifting the broad underprivileged and deprived masses in South Africa. On April 27, 1994 the first nonracial democratic election took place in South Africa to bring a free democratic dispensation to all people in South Africa. Proof of these changes was the awarding of the Nobel Peace prize to Mr. De Klerk and President Nelson Mandela in December 1993.

It would thus be unrealistic to explain the phenomenon of South African street children in a simplistic way by ascribing it to an isolated factor such as a previous unacceptable political system. The problem should rather be explained and addressed holistically (Van Niekerk 1990), considering all social, economic, political, cultural, and educational realities. Like any other country in the world, South Africa's problems, including its street children, are unique, and should be approached as such. Simplification regarding any specific matter or contentious issue often leads to unrealistic conceptualization and ineffective management (Le Roux, 1993).

According to Gebers (1990), the main reason South African children are predominantly male is the girls' responsibility to stay home and look after smaller children. Geber's study has shown street children to be 81.1% male and only 18.9% female, while Scharf(1988) found that only 10% of street children in Cape Town were female. Swart (1988) explains the predominance of male South African street children as follows: "In Johannesburg, as elsewhere in the world, street children are predominantly appears that girls are abandoned less frequently, and when the family disintegrates, relatives and neighbors are more willing to take them in than boys, since the girls assist with household tasks and child-minding. When girls drift onto the streets in their teens, they tend to become prostitutes and find accommodation rather than remain on the streets" (p. 34).

The findings of this research verify previous data, namely that South African street children are predominantly black males.

In the present study, all the street children interviewed had been on the streets since 1991. Richter's (Le Roux, 1993) profile on South African street children shows that about a third of the children return home within a short period of time. Another third stay on the streets for periods of 6 to 18 months, while the remaining third remain on the streets for more than two years. (See Figure 2.)(Figure 2 omitted) The majority of street children in rich First World countries return home within a month of running away. In contrast, Richter (1991) found that about half the street children in his sample had been on the street for at least one year.

Many street children do not have a clear concept of time. They often do not know how old they are or how long they have been on the streets. They can talk only in terms of specific events, like how many Christmases they have eaten on the streets. Gebers (1990) interviewed 159 street children in a cross-sectional study in order to examine their health profiles in institutional care and on the street, respectively. Of those interviewed, 59.6% had not been in an institution or shelter, while 27.2% of the total group had been on the street for more than three years. It would appear that the longer children are exposed to street life, the more they are distanced from possible rehabilitation resources and thus become absorbed into the street life culture.

The findings of the present study correspond with those of previous research. In a Third World country like South Africa, children tend to stay on the street for longer periods than do children from First World countries -- primarily because they have no alternative accommodation or feasible family setting. (See Figure 3.)(Figure 3 omitted)

Children interviewed cited the following reasons for leaving home: family violence, parental alcoholism, abuse, poverty, and personal reasons.

Keen (1990) quoted a street child's words: When my mother drank she skelled us out, she said we were----! It was so ugly we couldn't take it anymore. She used to chase s out of the house and we had to go and find somewhere to sleep. Then she started to sleep with the man next door and they used to skel every day. We became ashamed, my sister and I, and I thought, 'No, I'm not going to stay here anymore'" (p. 11). This is a description of a broken home characterized by alcoholism, violence, and desertion by family which according to Keen's study, cause 90% of street children to leave home. Although some children flee in search of excitement, adventure, personal freedom and self-fulfillment, a comfortable, independent, and financially secure life, and to become part of the "action" in society (personal factors), the majority leave as a result of socioeconomic and other factors within the family or immediate environment. These family factors may include: abuse of alcohol and drugs; financial problems and poverty; family violence and family breakup; poor family relationships; parental unemployment and resulting stress; physical and/or sexual abuse of children; parents absent from home as a result of personal or financial reasons (e.g., a migrant labor system); collapse of family structure; collapse of extended family; and emergence of vulnerable nuclear families in urban areas (Le Roux, 1993).

According to Fall (1986) reasons for children leaving home can be categorized as "push" and "pull" factors. Pull factors include: excitement and glamour of living in great cities; hope of raising own living standard; and financial security and independence. Push factors include: natural population increase above carrying capacity; international trend of urbanization; cost of living; search for additional income; child abandonment and neglect; family size; and disintegration of the traditional family.

Many children come from structurally disadvantaged homes where poor living conditions result in many difficulties. Parental loss through death or abandonment and/or family conflict or shortage of housing may force children onto the streets. In many cases the move to street life is an adaptive response to the stress and severe oppression experienced by families living in a society of conflict. Thus, the move to the streets often represents a desire to take control of one's life and displace old values and conditions with new ones (Hickson & Gaydon, 1989).

According to Cockburn (1991) "In extreme circumstances street children are the neglected, abused and rejected offspring of parents and communities benumbed by the minimal conditions of their lives ... 80% of all children we see have a history of abuse: physical, sexual or emotional" (p. 13).

Swart (1988) also refers to the above reasons why children leave home. The street child phenomenon is directly linked to rapid industrialization and urbanization with the concomitant breakdown of extended family ties: "Harsh or neglectful treatment of children by their families frequently derives from parental depression, anger, anxiety and frustration at life circumstances" (p. 34).

Other reasons mentioned by Swart include the current political system of migrant labor and racial segregation, as well as unrest and violence in black residential areas in South Africa. Other authors (Richter, 1991; Swart, 1988; Cockburn, 1991; Peacock, 1989; Scharf, 1988; Ross, 1991; Keen, 1990; Swart, 1990) gave more or less the same reasons for children taking to the streets. The present research confirms these findings.


It needs to be emphasized that street children represents a worldwide phenomenon despite cultural differences. Examination of the literature also indicates that the backgrounds of street children, despite some differences, are remarkably similar. Although findings presented in the present study reflect aspects of the South African street child's condition, most of these are common among street children internationally.


Cockburn, A. (1991). Street children: Characteristics and dynamics of the problem. Child Welfare, 17(1), 6-7.

Fall, M. (1986). Street children. Street Children, 13, 47- 53.

Gebers, P.E. (1990). Health of street children in Cape Town. The Child Care Worker, 8(9), 11-14.

Hickson, J., & Gaydon, V. (1989). Counseling in South Africa. The challenge of Apartheid "Twight children": The street children of Johannesburg. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development 17, 85-89.

Keen, J. (1990).A window on the inner world of street children. The Child Care Worker, 8(5), 11-12.

Le Roux, J. (Ed.). (1993). The black child in crisis (Vol. I). Pretoria: J.L. van Schaik.

Peacock, R. (1989). The masculilte black street child. An exploratory psychocriminological investigation. Unpublished M.A. dissertation. Pretoria: University of Pretoria.

Richter, L.M. (1991). Street children in South Africa: General theoretical introduction: Society, family and childhood. Part 1 of a paper presented at the First National Workshop of Street-Wise. April 1990. Johannesburg.

Rose, C. (1991). The street children: Survival strategies. Indicator SA 8(4), 69-72.

Schafer, P. (1989). The twilight world of street children. Reader's Digest, 134, 19-24.

Scharf, W. (1988). Street kids: Past achievements and future challenges. Child Care Worker, 6(8), 13-15.

Swart, J.M. (1988). "Street-Wise": Opening the way to self-actualization for the street child. Africa Insight 18(1), 32-41.

Swart, J.M. (1990). Street children: Their health and welfare. Chasa, 1(1), 5-12.

Van Niekerk, P.A. (1990). An educational perspective on street children. Journal of Pedagogics, 11(2), 90-103.

Zingaro, L. (1988). Working with street kids. The Child Care Worker 6, 9-11.

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