Put children and young people first in South Africa’s recovery out of unrest and COVID-19

OpEd: by UNICEF South Africa Representative, Christine Muhigana, ahead of Nelson Mandela Day

16 July 2021
UNICEF South Africa/2015/Schermbrucker

PRETORIA, 16 July 2021 – The last week of unrest across South Africa resulted in the reported deaths of at least three children – a 15-year old boy a 14-year old boy and a 14-year old girl.

UNICEF is devastated for the individuals, families and communities affected.

We’ve also seen widely shared and shocking images of a two-year-old girl thrown from a building to be saved from a fire in Durban, with other social media content showing the participation of children in looting.

This comes at a time when the country is battling a third COVID-19 wave and with schools already closed due to high infection rates, children are more at risk of being caught up in or involved in unrest.

Safeguarding children from voluntary or encouraged involvement in the lawlessness is critical and communities must come together to protect children.

Law enforcement agencies also need to exercise restraint and protect children at every step of the way, in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and national legal instruments.

Similarly, for the many communities that have taken a stand in saying no to criminality and looting, ensuring that children are kept safe from harm must be a priority. 

The unrest has also affected the COVID-19 response. Some vaccination sites have temporarily closed, while health clinics have been damaged and medical stocks reportedly looted.

Just as the COVID-19 vaccination roll-out had been gathering pace, statistics showed a drop in vaccinations in areas where the unrest was at its worst. This puts more lives at risk. Large crowds that are not practicing COVID-19 prevention measures could further fuel the spread of the virus.

UNICEF’s community engagement work, with the National and Provincial Departments of Health, on COVID-19 prevention messaging, vaccine registration support and broader health services was temporarily halted during the unrest.

But as South Africa works to slow the spread of COVID-19, including by getting more shots into people’s arms, the impact of the unrest will hit children and the most vulnerable communities the hardest.

Routine child and family health services could be further disrupted. National routine immunization coverage for children under one year is at 79 percent, already 4 percent below pre-COVID-19 rates and well under the 90 percent target. Catch-up drives are bringing the numbers back up, but these efforts cannot afford any further shocks.

The disruption to food supplies comes as latest figures show that child hunger has not declined from the high rate of 14 percent and three million children live in households affected by hunger. Screening for malnutrition in the early days and years of life, promoting breastfeeding and improving education on good nutrition can help but only when there is access to nutritious food for all.

And the high levels of youth unemployment, at nearly 75 percent, are unsustainable.  Initiatives such as Generation Unlimited, which brings together the private sector, academia, Government, UN and many others, are working to provide young people with relevant 21st century skills, mentorship and support young entrepreneurs so some of the most vulnerable young people can transition into working lives.

Despite the unrest, we are now seeing communities, including youth, actively coming together to support each other, to stop the unrest, to clean-up and to begin the process of healing in their communities.

Ahead of Nelson Mandela Day this Sunday, it is these acts of kindness and community that require all our support in rebuilding and reimagining a safer, fairer and better South Africa.

We have seen through the COVID-19 pandemic how children and young people play an active role in their communities. Youth volunteers have been helping people over 60 and younger to register for their COVID-19 vaccines. Many young people are engaging in productive dialogue online to tackle misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19 with facts and science-based evidence.

UNICEF and partners will stand up to support children and young people who are doing what they can to create a better tomorrow. We will support community dialogues and continue to focus on a whole of society approach to foster an environment that is safer and more conducive for a childhood in which children not only survive but thrive.

It is child and youth-led actions that give expression to Madiba’s words that children are the rock on which our future will be built, our greatest asset as a nation. They will be the leaders of our country, the creators of our national wealth who care for and protect our people’.

As we move forward, we must give children every opportunity to do just that.

OpEd Daily Maverick: Remember Madiba’s words: Children are the rock on which to build the future

Media contacts

Toby Fricker
Chief of Communication & Partnerships
UNICEF South Africa
Tel: +27 61 418 7486
Sudeshan Reddy
Communication Specialist
UNICEF South Africa
Tel: +27 82 561 3970


UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in over 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special efforts on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children everywhere.

Working with a range of partners, UNICEF has had a presence in South Africa since the end of apartheid and continues to work towards bettering the lives of all children in the country.

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