South Africa’s income disparities are among the world’s highest. Related social problems in urban areas profoundly affect the most vulnerable–children & youth. Increasing numbers of them are connecting to the street in SA, due to urban migration, poverty, rapid urbanization, social disintegration, HIV, drug abuse, family dysfunction-abuse & neglect. Teenagers leave difficult home circumstances to face much greater risks on the streets. A 2017 study has found at least 4000 homeless people on the streets of Durban, many of whom are youth. If one counts those on the streets in surrounding townships, the numbers are projected to be possibly as high as 9000.

 The Greater Durban (eThekwini) Municipal Integrated Development Plan 2017-2022 cites teen pregnancy, alcohol abuse, HIV/AIDS & homelessness as the 4 main social challenges. Children & youth living on the streets are exposed to subcultures of crime, substance abuse, gambling, multiple partner- or transactional sex, sexual exploitation & abuse, & unplanned pregnancy, STIs & HIV, with little access to health services.  

Street-connected children in South Africa are generally stigmatized & vilified by law enforcement & citizens alike, although this has improved over the past 10 years as a result of an advocacy campaign led by uMthombo around the time of the 2010 World Cup, during which time street connected children were being violently removed from the streets by law enforcement. 

The situation of girls and young women is even more dire than that of the boys and young men on the streets in eThekwini, as a result of gender inequality and the tendency for them to be drawn into sex work or abusive relationships with men on the streets. Drugs are a welcome distraction and very few of the girls and young women are not living with HIV, STIs or related diseases, while at the same time being excluded from sexual and reproductive health services due to stigma and prejudice.

UMthombo works in the eThekwini Metro in KwaZulu Natal, with a population of 3 548 516, and an unemployment rate of 30.2%. In 2017 kwaZulu Natal had the 3rd highest crime statistics in South Africa, after Gauteng and the Western Cape (SA Police Services). About 20% of its population are children & youth aged between 15 and 24. Among these, the unemployment rate is around 40%. This creates fertile ground for teenage hopelessness & a lack of future-orientation, and the availability of cheap drugs on the streets creates a tempting escape route to apparent ‘freedom’.

The eThekwini Mayor has committed its Integrated Development Plan to prioritize youth development and address vulnerable groups such as street-connected children, but there is little evidence of a systematic strategy across all districts. Multi-stakeholder local Government ‘War Room’ structures are tasked with tackling social issues in an integrated way, although at-risk & street-connected children and youth tend to be a low priority- thus this is a key advocacy target for uMthombo.

A compounding factor is the increasing availability of new more affordable drugs in African townships, thus increasing the pull-factor of drugs as a ‘solution’ to the problems of children and youth. Many community-based networks report struggling to respond effectively to at-risk children’s and youth needs in their fragmented & resource-poor communities. There is an alarming increase in drug abuse by children & youth under 20, who cannot afford private rehabilitation, with 18-month waiting periods in public facilities. 

Currently uMthombo has over 140 young people on its waiting list for its detox and personal development programme. This is about 4 times higher than at any tie in its history.

Experience has shown the importance of intervening as early as possible &ensuring local support systems exist to improve the likelihood of reintegration & these children & youth rebuilding their lives. Moreover, when children and youth appear on Durban streets, most are already engaged in high-risk behaviors or street living in their home communities. These are mostly township areas, where unemployment, HIV prevalence & rates of family dysfunction are high, & children and youth often live in intractable situations.

An uMthombo community mapping exercise identified 10 high-risk township communities, & pilot work was done in 4 of these in 2016-7. uMthombo has targeted 2 of the 4, in order to deepen the capacity of key structures who have been working closely with uMthombo: Claremont/KwaDabeka – Pinetown Region & Inanda –INK Northern Region: 2 key structures have been identified as core partners in each community. This is new work for uMthombo and will be documented and reviewed as a possible ‘good practice’ model that may be adapted in other similar contexts.