If he were a policeman, things would be different: ‘I could help my mom and dad when they drink and shout at them when they drink,’ he said. ‘I would also arrest them.’
Now 16, Daniel has lived at a safe house in the Eastern Cape’s small, impoverished town of Middelburg for at least four years. He knows where his parents live and even sees them occasionally. But he will likely never go ‘home.’
His story is not unique. While most children in Middelburg don’t have the luxury of living in a safe home, hundreds of their lives are defined by the alcohol and drugs that are crippling this 44,000-person community.
It’s not just the parents who are abusing. Intoxication has become a family affair, with children as young as nine years old becoming addicted to alcohol, dagga and glue-sniffing. In fact, an estimated 400 kids here spend most of their young lives on the streets, doing drugs, drinking, committing petty crimes and assaults, according to conversations with locals, teachers and children’s home owners. Many have learned from their parents.
‘Sometimes you go to shebeens and taverns and find the whole family there,’ said a resident and board member of the Emmanuel Children’s Home where Daniel lives, who asked not to be named for fear of alienating his community members.
‘The mother sitting there, the father and children would also be there and I would ask myself what they eat at that time. The kids grow up knowing that what is happening is the right thing whereby it is not a good thing at all.’
Daniel himself has been known to disappear for days, and his safe house guardians suspect he sneaks off to drinks.
Daniel’s cousin, Sian, often cuts school and joins a group of boys to share in the sniffing of a bottle of glue that he had bought for R8.50 at the local corner store. He is 14 years old and has been getting high for at least five years.
There are no official services or organisations dealing with kids and drugs in Middelburg. It allows the childhood substance abuse problem to grow exponentially.
While there are no official numbers for the community specifically, nationwide the number of children with drug addictions is suspected to have increased by seven percent in the last years, according the South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
Factors such as peer pressure, trauma and poverty push kids toward drugs, experts believe, so this makes it an uphill battle in Middelburg. The Eastern Cape’s unemployment rate was 27.7 percent in the second quarter of 2010, according to Statistics South Africa. The closest big town to Middelburg with viable employment opportunities is Bloemfontein, nearly four hours’ drive away.
In an attempt to deal with the problems, Carol and Bertus Deysel took over the management of Emmanuel Children’s Home just over a year ago. They have nine children who they foster to live with them, including Danny, and feed nearly 50 kids in the area each day.
‘Our view is not to take the kids from the parents,’ Carol said. ‘It’s to support the kids who need it.’
In August, Daniel, Sian and a dozen kids like them sat down for a meal of samp and beans with game meat at the Deysel house. Sian’s pants were torn along the inner seam on both legs. His jacket was covered with dust and dirt. His skin was dry and ashy.
As they ate, the children laughed. Then Bertus confiscated a sharp object from one of the boys. Don’t let them fool you,’ Bertus warned. ‘He’d use it as a weapon.’
The Deysels are one of the only things standing between these kids and genuine despair. But the couple has faced bureaucratic challenges in trying to get the Department of Social Development to register them since they took over. Without registration, they can’t get much-needed government funding or use the house as a permanent home for a child.
They have been forced to take private donations, fundraise and sell clothes out of a second-hand shop to try to cover the monthly costs of running the home and caring for the children, which could be R45,000 at maximum capacity of 20 kids.
Nearby, Middelland High School believes that 30 to 40 percent of its students use drugs.
‘Eight- and nine-year-olds are starting to experiment [with alcohol and drugs] and when they get to us they are full blown alcoholics,’ said Candy Miller, a teacher at the school, which has over 1,000 learners.
Schools do the best they can but the problem is much bigger than they can handle.
‘There’s very little support, and only four or five social workers that serve the entire town. So kids are left to their own devices. There’s only so much we can do. We’re not trained as psychologists,’ said Miller.
To paint the picture, Miller explains that one of the grade 8 students is pregnant while a child in grade 11 is preparing to stand trial for murder.
The parents of many of these children are alcoholics and drug abusers themselves.
In Lusaka township in Middelburg, where Danny and his cousin originate, Sam Booysen is raising two daughters and a son in a one-room shack surrounded by taverns and homes known for selling home-brews laced with battery acid for that extra kick.
Slurring from apparent intoxication, Booysen, whose son often eats at the Emmanuel Children’s Home, said he knows his son gets high while skipping school.
‘My son can get into serious trouble if he continues smoking this glue,’ said Booysen. ‘He is mixed up with the gangs. I am worried that they can get arrested or break into houses, meaning that the police will be knocking on my door looking for me. What am I supposed to do?’
Booysen added sincerely that he wished his son had followed in his footsteps and denied playing a part in causing the children’s problems.
Other locals recounted stories about parents who brought their babies and young children into bars with them to drink or gave them beer when they were hungry.
The picture is bleak for Middelburg children stuck on the bottle or pipe.
The closest thing to a drug treatment center is Komani Hospital, a psychiatric hospital that is a three-hour drive away in Queenstown, But children exhibiting signs of psychosis from a drug-induced high have been sent to Komani for treatment only to be released within a few weeks with no changes.