ISCI is a cross-disciplinary research centre working to further our understanding of state crime: organisational deviance violating human rights

Draw and Tell: Street Children In Apartheid South Africa


Children are often the invisible victims of state neglect. This is arguably a state crime of ‘omission’. In some circumstances abuse can also arise from deliberate ‘acts’, which are institutional or strategic in nature, and may reflect state policy. In both instances, the state derogates from its obligation to protect children, which is codified in a number of international conventions.


Access ‘Draw and Tell: Street Children In Apartheid South Africa’ casestudy

Apartheid South Africa was an example of deliberate abuse. Public services were denied to “non-white” children, children were held and punished as political prisoners, families were systematically destroyed, and thousands of children ended up living on the streets (UNICEF 1989). Even a drawing of state abuse could have put the child in jail.

But children’s drawings were also an effective way to collect data, and a powerful tool for advocacy. Over a two-year period (1984-6), research conducted among street children in South Africa utilized ‘draw and tell’ as a victim-centered method of state crime research. The children’s narrated drawings vividly illustrated how macro-abuse of state power (apartheid) was translated into micro-abuse of street children through the police, military, government officials and the public. At the time, vigilante groups were also systematically attacking children to “cleanse” white districts, with tacit police and political approval. The children’s drawings also evidenced these crimes.

Their ‘draw and tell’ accounts often appear less contrived than much adult testimony, which often reflects hidden agendas, for example, gaining refugee status. More recently, draw and tell methods have been used with North Korean refugees (NKN 2000), and children in Darfur (Cameron 2010).

 The following case study provides a range of materials to:

  • encourage new conceptualizations of state crime in relation to child victims.
  • demonstrate ethical child-centered research methods, with an awareness of the pitfalls.
  • show that if data is collected effectively and systematically, it can be used for forensic evidence and advocacy.