By Kotie Geldenhuys
It boggles one's mind when the innocence of a child meets the severity of a violent crime like murder. Yet, there are a number of cases in South Africa where children became brutal murderers. It included the case where learners from the Waterkloof Hoërskool, namely Reinach Tiedt, Gert van Schalkwyk, Christoff Becker and Frikkie du Preez, who were aged between 14 and 16 at the time, murdered a homeless man in a park in the east of Pretoria in December 2001. They later became known as the Waterkloof Four (Sosibo, 2014). Then there was the shocking incident that happened in April 2012, when 15-year-old Don Steenkamp murdered his mother, father and sister on their farm outside Griekwastad in the Northern Cape (Kwan Hoo, 2014). At the time when they committed their crimes, these murderers where minors and protected under the Child Justice Act 75 of 2008.
The Waterkloof Four and the Griekwastad cases are only two of the many cases in which children committed violent crimes. It is worrying that there has been an increase in the number of cases where children became murderers during the past year in South Africa. When the annual crime statistics were released by the SAPS in September 2019, Maj-Gen Norman Sekhukhune who heads the SAPS's Research and Statistics Component, noted that a shocking 736 of the 21 022 murders recorded by the SAPS between 1 April 2018 and 31 March 2019 were committed by children - younger than 18. He added that another statistic that is of concern is the number of common assaults committed by children which stood at 4196 (Makinana and Makhetha, 2019).
Reports about children stabbing one another with scissors and knives at schools or killing family members are no longer isolated incidents and it makes one wonder what is happening to our children. Do they have proper role-models or are their role-models neglecting their task to teach children about respect and care for fellow human beings? One of the possible explanations is that many children grow up in environments where violence has almost become normalised. Gareth Newham, who is the Head of the Justice and Violence Prevention programme at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) reminds us that "if children watch their mothers and family members being beaten in front of them, it creates anger in them and they lash out against whoever that might aggravate their emotions" (Makinana and Makhetha, 2019).
Zita Hansungule, a Senior Project Coordinator at the Centre for Child Law (CCL) at the University of Pretoria agrees that one of the biggest factors that contributes to children acting violently is being exposed to violence themselves. "A lot of violent behaviour in children can be attributed to what children are exposed to, their environment they grow up in. Children could be exposed to violence, gang violence, drug abuse - all of those affect how a child responds," she notes (Grobler, 2019).
Murder is such an extreme form of crime and the motivation for adult murderers may remain a mystery even after they have been convicted. Finding the motivation of what had pushed a child to commit murder can be even more difficult. Some of the reasons that have been noted among child murderers include being a victim of abuse, having a family member with a criminal record, suffering from a traumatic loss, having a history of disruptive behaviour, witnessing or experiencing violence (such as domestic violence, child abuse and gang violence) and/or being rejected or abandoned by a parent. Experiencing problems at the home can be particularly influential. If a child witnesses or experiences violence, they are likely to repeat violence in other situations (Muller, 2015). Ms Hansungule pointed out that it should not be assumed that all children who are exposed to violence will become violent themselves, but that research has shown that children who commit crime are acting out what they are being exposed to. Patrick Burton, the Executive Director at the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention (CJCP) in Cape Town, added that "different children respond differently" (Grobler, 2019). In this article we will look briefly at some of the factors that might impact children to act out violently and the justice system's response in dealing with these dangerous children.
The role of parents
Apart from the violence children are exposed to in their houses and neighbourhoods, they might also become involved in crime when they search for something they do not get at home. Parents are often so caught up in life's rat race and concerned about their individual well-being that they have little concern for their children's well-being. Financial welfare is sometimes higher on parents' agenda than their own children. Parents have a responsibility to teach children discipline as it builds balanced, strong individuals who do not easily succumb to peer pressure or bad influences. This requires from parents to be involved in their children's lives. When parents do not play their role, children may follow examples from other family members, peers and social groups (Secure Teen, 2017).
It runs in the family
There is a general perception that when a child has a parent with a history of criminal behaviour, the child is likely to follow in his or her parent's footsteps. A study conducted by Sytske Besemer, a criminological researcher at Uber in San Francisco, about the intergenerational transfer of criminal behaviour, found that children of criminal parents had a 2.4 times greater chance of becoming involved in crime than children with law-abiding parents. After the figures had been screened for other factors, such as socioeconomic status, family size, teenage parenthood, conflict with parents, level of education and child abuse, children with criminal parents still had a 1.8 times greater chance of breaking the law (NWO, 2017). Yablonsky (2000) claims that most boys who get involved in criminal activities had no positive adult role-models, as their fathers, older brothers and uncles have been involved in drugs and gangs and were in and out of correctional facilities.