Official crime statistics indicate that in South Africa, roughly 1,000 children are murdered every year – almost three a day – but experts suggest this could be an undercount.
Shanaaz Mathews claims that far more children are victims of murders that are not adequately investigated by the police, not charged or entirely ignored.
The official numbers are “just the tip of the iceberg,” says Ms. Mathews, director of the University of Cape Town Children’s Institute and perhaps the country’s leading child homicide specialist.
Children are not exceptional and are not spared in a world where more than 50 individuals are murdered every day.
“Violence has become ingrained in the psyche of South Africa,” Ms. Mathews said.
“How can we break this cycle?” she asked.
In 2014, to expose the true extent of these child deaths, Ms. Mathews started a research project.
In order to decide precisely how they died, she did so by asking forensic pathologists to put the dead bodies of hundreds of newborns, babies, toddlers and teenagers on exam tables.
Examining child deaths is popular in developed countries, but before the project of Ms. Mathews, it had never been done in South Africa.
The findings were, as she suspected, grim.
For a year, pathologists in two morgues in Cape Town and Durban investigated the bodies of 711 children and found that more than 15 percent of them died from homicides.
The official U.K., by contrast, Last year’s report on infant mortality showed that 1 percent of child deaths were homicides.
The study by Ms. Mathews found that in those two counties, homicide was the second leading cause of death for infants.
She said, “And the numbers are not going down,”
“If anything, they’re going up.”
In South Africa, two trends exist.
Desperately high rates of violent street crime are engulfing adolescents.
Yet significant numbers of young children under the age of five are still victims of lethal violence committed by mothers and husbands, family and friends, in kitchens and living rooms, at dinner tables and in front of televisions, not by a perpetrator with a pistol or a knife on a street corner.
The legal system sometimes fails and cases “fall through the cracks,” when it comes to fatal child violence, Ms. Mathews said.
There was, she said, the case of a nine-month-old boy who, after being dropped off at day care, started having seizures.
While he was rushed to the hospital immediately, the child died.
Doctors reported significant head injuries and told the mother to go to the police, but there was no follow-up.
His mother never announced his death.
About two years later, when police attempted to reopen the case, the baby had been buried for a long time and the evidence was cold.
A child safety specialist, Joan van Niekerk, recounts several cases derailed by negligence and misconduct by the police.
“I sometimes go through phases where I’m angrier at the system than at the perpetrators, and that’s not good,” she said.
Ms. van Niekerk said justice is unacceptably “hard to achieve.” for children in South Africa.
And the lack of justice leads to more deaths often.
Wandi Zitho was five years old when he was killed in April, and a neighbor in Johannesburg reportedly strangled him with a rope.
According to a police officer who investigated the case, the neighbor, who was initially charged with killing him, was released and the case was temporarily dropped because the police could not have adequate proof, likely due to a delay in the processing of forensic evidence.
Months later, the woman was again arrested and accused of murdering two more children.
Then there was Tazne van Wyk’s case.
Tazne was eight years old when, in February, almost two weeks after she vanished, her body was found in a storm drain near a lane.
She was kidnapped, raped and killed, the police said.
Tazne’s parents accuse the Department of Corrections of releasing the man accused of murdering their daughter on parole despite his history of violent crimes against children.
He had already violated his parole once.
They also accuse police of failing to act on a tip that could have saved Tazne in the hours after she disappeared.
The case was high-profile.
The police minister spoke at Tazne’s funeral and admitted mistakes.
“We failed this child,” he acknowledged, pointing to Tazne’s small white, gold-decorated coffin.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa visited the van Wyk home un