WHILE the rest of South Africa celebrates Youth Day tomorrow, many children and teenagers in the Eastern Cape will wake up cold and hungry, focused solely on trying to make it through another day.
This is because the majority of the province’s youth grow up in impoverished areas and have to get by on next to nothing.
To make matters worse, the province’s budget for youth empowerment programmes has been slashed by R13.8-million, which means youth projects will be cut by half.
The Eastern Cape has the highest rate of youth unemployment, the most orphans and child- headed households, and the most school dropouts.
Malnutrition and lack of education is the norm for many.
A special investigation by The Herald found that 18 years into democracy, the outlook for the nation’s future – its youth – was bleaker than ever in a province once celebrated for the leaders it provided.
Inadequate government funding for orphans has meant friends and neighbours taking on the responsibility of caring for many children, and when they cannot, the children are forced to take on adult roles and provide for themselves and their siblings.
One such person is Lwando Kana, who told reporters he was 20, although he looked no older than 12. He is among the 23.2% of orphaned children in the province.
Having dropped out of school a few years ago to take care of himself and his little sister, Lwando washes cars in Nelson Mandela Bay’s Zwide area for just R50 a day, which he uses for food and electricity.
Like the hundreds of thousands of paternal orphans in the province, Lwando never knew his father and the burden to provide fell solely on him.
“I had to leave school. I work here at the car wash just so that I can earn some money to buy food and electricity for the house. That is how I live,” he said.
Tia Wessels, the director of Family Restorative Services – four homes for orphaned children in Motherwell – said most of the children she cared for had been paternal orphans since birth.
“A lot of fathers are absent. They left the mothers while pregnant or shortly after birth. The children are left in the lurch when the mother dies,” she said.
Malnutrition has been cited as one of the major problems undermining children’s health in South Africa, with 25% of pre-schoolers and 20% of primary school pupils suffering from chronic malnutrition, according to researchers.
For hundreds of pupils at the Bay’s new Alfonso Arries Primary, their only hope of getting a meal is by going to school, because they do not get fed at home.
Acting principal Bruce Damons said parents simply could not afford to feed their children.
“In this area, the poverty and unemployment rates among parents are high,” he said.
“For many [pupils] the meal they get at school is the only decent meal in a day.”
According to the 2012 District Health Barometer report, which compares health outcomes in the country’s 52 health districts, there has been a severe increase in malnutrition in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo.
Statistics paint a bleak picture of what was supposed to have been significant strides in youth development since Soweto youngsters took to the streets in 1976 to fight for freedom in apartheid South Africa.
According to recent figures from Statistics South Africa, 38% of Eastern Cape children do not go to school because they do not have the money, while 2.6% of teenagers drop out of school because of pregnancy. A further 10.2% of teens think education is useless as job prospects are minimal.
A report by the Eastern Cape Socio-Economic Consultative Council, released in April, show young people are more likely than adults to face unemployment.
With national unemployment figures sitting at 35.9%, the Eastern Cape weighs in at 37.1%.
Young people – categorised as those aged 15 to 34 years – account for the most unemployed people in the country at 70% of the total.
While youth employment in the province has increased by 5.5%, the number of young people who have given up looking for work has skyrocketed since the pre-recessionary days in 2005, with 270000 in the province alone last year.
More than a quarter of the province’s children are not in an educational institution because of poor school performance or responsibilities at home.
The provincial Social Development Department has also struggled, having had to slash its 2012/13 budget for youth empowerment programmes by R13.8-million to accommodate staff salaries.
“Youth and women development sub-programmes had their budgets cut to fund cost pressures in compensation of employees and goods and services,” a recent report tabled in Bhisho said.