Draw and tell: Street children in apartheid South Africa

Draw and tell: Street children in apartheid South Africa

Case Study Author

Chris Williams

Chris Williams is a Lecturer in International Education. Case study published 2012.


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.

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.

Chapter 1: The Draw and Tell Method

‘Draw and tell’ is a straightforward way to gain data from children (Pridmore & Rifkin 2001: 96). In some instances, the approach may be implemented using a freestyle methodology. This is where children are simply asked to draw and talk or write about their drawings.

The unscripted nature of this approach can sometimes yield interesting results. For example, in a project for street children, a care worker noticed that Meshack was always drawing graves – on schoolbooks, in art lessons, and on scrap paper. When asked about them directly, he would say nothing. But when someone asked him to “tell a story about” his pictures, he told of a boy who was looked after by his grandmother because his parents were dead. When she died, at her funeral the boy's uncles hit him and told him to go away. That was the story of how Meshack ended up on the streets.

‘Draw and tell’ methods can also be more systematic in nature. For example, children can be asked to construct drawings on a thematic basis. These themes may be derived from human universals, the things that we all experience - happiness, sadness, fear, surprise. Or the drawings can be generative. An initial theme comes from a known experience (‘me on the streets’), and drawings about the initial theme generate new themes for further drawings (‘fighting’) (see Williams 1990).

If able, children can write about their drawing. In non-literate or multi-lingual contexts, assistants can write what the children say.  It is vital to record the time, date, child’s name and formal ID, name of the adult assistant, context (e.g. a church soup kitchen), and other details on the picture. Proper notes greatly increase the credibility of the data. Children’s drawings have been accepted as evidence by courts, for example at the International Criminal Court (BBC 2009). The ISCI website has interesting examples from Darfur (Cameron 2010).

The usual research ethics apply to pictures - confidentiality, permissions, understanding of how they will be used. But it is also important to respect the wishes of children who do not want to be anonymous (as in this archive), because actively redressing personal injustice is recognized as being therapeutic.

A ‘draw and tell’ approach can also enhance the ethical aspects of research. Often, studies of vulnerable children are exploitative;  the researcher gains a degree or fee, and the children get nothing. Or promises are made to improve their life, which are never fulfilled. By being part of an educational and therapeutic program drawing, talking and writing can give something back to children.

Photos, press reports and observations can help to triangulate and validate the findings from ‘draw and tell’ data. Often the content of a drawing can also inform the conduct of field work, for example where the children live and work.

Interpretation and analysis

Children’s drawings can be interpreted psychologically, but this requires a specialist approach, and is very difficult, especially in multi-cultural contexts. Talking directly to the children who draw the pictures is more reliable, because they will explain the meaning of what they draw, so there is no need to guess. 

On occasions, if the child is not asked for an explanation, a picture can mislead a researcher. For example, a psychiatrist jumped to the conclusion that Jobo’s picture of ‘a bad man’ was an indication of schizophrenia. But Jobo’s explanation was more straightforward and interesting. Jobo said that people are never all bad, but sometimes we only see the bad half. He was challenging a premise of the theme - ‘a bad man’.

Having examined the elementary features of the ‘draw and tell’ methodology, we will now utilise this framework to explore state crimes against children in apartheid South Africa. Please keep in mind that the data in this case study predates the era of mobile phones, digital cameras and widespread information technology. The only tools used were a film camera, photocopier, and pens and paper.

Chapter 2: State Violence

Drawing provided a good way to assess day-to-day violence directed by the police and security services towards street children in apartheid South Africa (examples of state crime as an ‘act’ rather than ‘omission’). When simply asked to draw ‘the police’, the children provided detailed evidence of their experiences. The drawings demonstrated that excuses to abuse or arrest the children were often very tenuous. For example, Jobo shows the use of archaic colonial gambling laws to arrest children playing dice.

Being hit by the long police “sjambok” whips, and being kicked, were also common themes also. This indicated that police violence was a constant reality for street children.

Police vans were often drawn. These pictures featured the conspicuous mesh in the van’s rear compartment, which is more evident when you are on the inside. Consequently, these pictures suggest the drawers have first-hand experience of being imprisoned in police vans. 

Sipho explained how the children were often put in the back of vans with dogs, because the police knew this was very frightening. The boys holding hands depicts fear. Sipho’s picture also shows the separation between the front and back compartments of the vans, which is not obvious from the outside, but very clear from the inside, which again suggests first-hand experience.

The drawings also revealed that police violence could be sudden and catastrophic. David told how he was sitting with friends around a fire at night, and a police van arrived. The police threw tear gas canisters into the fire, which exploded and burnt the children’s faces. At the time of doing the drawings, they still had the scars.

It also became apparent from the pictures that children were often assaulted by police on the slightest suspicion of criminality. Wilfred reported how he was hanging around the train station and a woman accused him of stealing her purse. A police officer immediately hit him. His drawing and description was so accurate that a senior officer recognized the policeman involved.

Although psychological assessments are difficult, when used together with explanations by the children, they may help to validate the drawing. For example, Stephen explains how he was arrested with a friend. The policeman is the smiling figure in the middle, with "dancing" feet, and a truncheon. The children have unsmiling faces, in-turned feet, and arms up in surrender, which suggested this was a first-hand experience.

Street children often ended up in prison. Sometimes they were placed by police in communal cells with adults who, in turn, abused them. Children told of boys being pulled across a table and raped as an "initiation" when they arrived, and of weapons and ongoing violence from inmates and prison staff.

Morris was simply asked to draw ‘hell’. The picture shows (from the top downwards)

  • A man being hung. The Pretoria Central Prison (now a museum) executed political prisoners 5 to 6 "inmates" at a time. The children said that the hangings sounded like being in a cinema at the end of a film, because when the victims dropped, the sound was like cinema seats banging upright as people stood up. Press reports corresponded with what the children said (New York Times 1988).
  • Rain, because the cell was damp.
  • Bars at the prison windows.
  • A devil doing kung fu, and men kicking and fighting.
  • (Centre) A new boy. The posture of the boy over the table, and the trajectories of the knives, suggest gang rape.
  • (Bottom, yellow) Money for gambling.
  • (Bottom, red) The cell lamp that was left on day and night to cause sleep deprivation.

As these numerous pictures evidence, street children were routinely assaulted by police for the most tenuous of reasons. On occasions, these assaults could be particularly horrific, as the example of the tear gas canister shows. Moreover, street children were placed by police in highly dangerous situations, where they could be raped or assaulted. We can conclude from the circumstances that these measures were calculated to instil terror into the children. Moreover, they were systematic and well known, so we can assume that at the highest governmental levels these actions were approved of or tolerated, as part of a broader policy to marginalise and suppress the non-white population.

Chapter 3: Public Violence

When the state presents children as immoral or criminal, and acts violently or fails to prevent violence against street children, public behavior is likely to follow this example.

Street children are especially vulnerable when they are sleeping, particularly if they are alone. Peter was sleeping in a park, and awoke to find a man throwing stones at him. Organizations trying to prevent abuse could often locate the likely sleeping places from pictures.

In extreme cases, in some countries, children have been tortured or killed by members of the public. More commonly in South Africa, however, shopkeepers and security guards used sticks to drive children away from marketplaces and commercial areas.  As Peter shows, you run fast, but keep an eye on where the blows might come from.

As a result of the heightened state of insecurity generated by the state’s actions and inaction, violence between street children and adult street dwellers was common. When children were asked to draw ‘a bad person’ they often drew this form of violence. For example, Christopher depicts the outcome of a fight between a gang leader and a child who resultantly lost an eye – the figures say, ‘I am going to win’, ‘He is going to win’.

While on the streets, children also regularly witnessed violence between members of the public. Isaac shows a man being robbed of a case containing bank notes.

Chapter 4: State Neglect

It is not inevitable that children, even if from very poor families, should end up on the streets. It is an outcome of the actions or inaction of those responsible for the child’s care, including the state. Even in situations where children suffer abuse at home or school, measures can be deployed by the state to ensure the children are protected. However, in apartheid South Africa the state consciously failed to protect vulnerbale non-white children. There were no white street children, although white families were sometimes very poor.

Domestic violence is a common reason why children run away from home. When states fail to protect children, the streets are often the only ‘safe’ option. Children’s pictures of ‘me at home’ often showed pleasant surroundings but abusive adults.

When children were asked to draw the ‘good and bad things at school’ the results were not surprising. States, particularly in Africa, often permit and encourage violence by teachers, which in some cases leads to death (Harber, 2004).  Abuse at school explains why some children run away from home, and end up on the streets. They are trapped, because returning home, or to school,will result in being further punished. Therefore in this case, the marginalisation of children to street life is a product of state action. 

Asking children to draw ‘me on the streets’ revealed a lot about the day-to-day risks street life presented. South African children often drew themselves in boxes, which turned out to be dustbins, which were good places to sleep. Fieldwork at night verified the data. But, despite the horrors of street life, the children maintained a sense of fun. When asked if bins were good places to sleep, one child replied “Yes, safe, but don’t put the lid on”. When asked why the lid should not be put on, he replied, “Cos then, in the morning, you get taken away with the rubbish.”

Chapter 5: Caught in the Crossfire

A distinct aspect of understanding the child's experience is to realize that they not only become the victim of violence by the state and public, but also by anti-state groups and those who should be their allies. The state fails to protect them from this violence, because it divides and weakens activist groups, and provides effective state propaganda. For example, in apartheid South Africa, even taking part in the ‘People’s Education’ movement – an activist initiative that was outside the control of the state and therefore illegal - could lead to police violence. But not taking part could also lead to violence, from the community (UWC 1987).

On one occasion, early morning fieldwork caught a man who drove up in a car and started to steal a boy’s blankets, which had been given by a charity. The photo, which included the car number, provided the basis for a police investigation. The boys said this was common, and so they sleep with all their clothes on, even in summer, to keep them safe. They say that shoes are often stolen by adults who cut the laces with a razor blade while they sleep. The irony in the apartheid context, is that the perpetrator is a middle class black man stealing from vulnerable black children.

Because of the state’s failure to protect children, they sometimes became victims of debased "traditional" practices such as muti (medicine) which use children's body-parts. Street children are especially vulnerable, and were easy targets for abduction. Stories of this were reflected in drawings of ‘a bad person’. Press reports told of similar abuse.

When asked simply to draw ‘school’ in the townships, scenes of violence perpetrated by anti-state forces were common. The content of these drawings was often easy to validate from press reports and photos. But attention to detail is important. Children need to be asked to explain every aspect of a drawing, even shapes that seem irrelevant doodles. Frank’s drawing of ‘school’ shows violent scenes that were often reported in the press. But small “Polo mint” shapes turned out to be the most interesting aspect. They were tyres to be used for necklacing. Necklacing involves pushing a tyre over a victim to pinion the arms, dousing it with petrol, and then setting fire to it. This mutation of traditional witch-killing practices was used against blacks who were seen as collaborators with state forces.  In 1986, Winnie Mandela encouraged the practice when she said, "we shall liberate this country" with "our boxes of matches and our necklaces" (Beresford 1989).

Later, when out on fieldwork in a black township, a group of children were seemingly enjoying an innocent song and dance around some old tyres. But, when the recording of the song was translated, the song turned out to be about necklacing. This was discovered when a black assistant worker saw the photograph, and checked the recording. This showed how the “crossfire” of state and activist terror permeated children’s lives.

Chapter 6: The Childrens' Own Assessment of their Life

One danger with using drawings is the imposition of adult interpretations. When gernative themes were used in-depth over time, street children were able to develop their own narratives about life on the street. Some of the findings were surprising.

Despite the obvious horrors of street life, violence is not necessarily  ‘the most horrible thing that can happen to a person’. A common response to this theme was to draw people who are lonely. 

This fear of loneliness explains why children usually operate in quasi family groups on the streets. Younger children, who can easily earn money by begging, may be looked after by older boys who do less well at begging but can protect them. In the photo, young sleeping children are protected by an older “father” who sleeps on the outside. Street workers need to work with groups as a whole, via the “parents”, because destroying this type of group would be like destroying a family.

Street children sometimes use cheap soft drugs, particularly glue sniffing from plastic bottles. When asked to draw ‘what I see in my head when I sniff glue’,  Banda depticted his mother and two sisters, while Saul was being chased by a car and a snake, towards a big hole. Again this shows that the children’s assessment of what is problematic about their lives might differ from adult percpetions.

 Although living in the city, the children often had traditional beliefs and fears, especially of ghosts. Some of these were familiar images, such as skeletons, which probably reflect TV or films. But South African children often drew the ‘thokolosh’ a mythical southern African figure that is said to be very hairy. Images of the ‘thokolosh’ often appear in ethnographic museums. 

We usually assess moral values by comparing ‘demonstrated’ values (observed behaviour) and ‘stated’ values (the values that people say they think are right). The ‘stated’ values of the street children were assessed by asking them to list ‘people doing good things’, and ‘people doing bad things’. Christopher’s response depicts the virtues of discipline and faith. Interestingly despite police abuse, he lists the ‘police’ as ‘good’.

GOOD - police, training, kung fu, a singing man, planting flowers, going to church.

BAD - Knife, house breaker, smoking, shooting birds, driving into a tree, fighting for money.

Conclusion: State Crime Against Children

Large-scale child neglect – a state crime of ‘omission’ –  continues around the world. Street children sadly remain one of the most obvious examples. However, this phenomenon is not directly related to the wealth of communities. In India, street children are very evident in relatively wealthy cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Calcutta. But in the less wealthy southern state of Kerala, it is hard to find abandoned children. Kerala has historically invested in education and welfare, school attendance is nearly 100 percent, and the region’s literacy and health status is very good. As a result, Kerala state avoids the crime of failing to protect its children on a large scale.

As we have observed in the case study children are also actively victimized by states. Direct ‘acts’ of systematic abuse by the state, have a long history, for example the transportation of child offenders and orphans from Britain to its colonies, which continued until the 1970s; and the removal of indigenous children from their families in Australia, Canada, and the United States. The existence of child soldiers is an ongoing example of state abuse of children (UN 2012). Concern have also been raised about the mandatory use of child-labor within the North Korean state education system (UN 2009).

Of course, whether these forms of abuse arise from ‘act’ or ‘omission’ is arguable. Moreover, characterizing abusers as state agents or quasi-state authorities can be challenging and often depends on the definition of ‘state’. How should we conceptualize the circumstance of abandoned and militarized children in Somalia or DR Congo, or the systematic use of children as beggars by Marabout Islamic teachers in countries such as Senegal (WSCN 2007)? The abusive deployment of children by the Taliban and other ‘predator states’ (Green and Ward 2005: 185), or ‘terrorist’ organizations, is similarly open to semantic debate, and this can distract from the urgent need to address the realities of these children’s lives. But reports such as those detailing the torture and killing of children by Syrian state forces in 2011, leave less room for argument (HRW 2011).

However these state acts and omissions are conceptualized, the South Africa case study shows that there are effective and ethical ways to discover the children’s views about their circumstances, and that this provides perspectives that may be surprising from the adult observers’ point-of-view. Most importantly, these methods not only provide a way to ‘research down’ in relation to a minority group, but also to ‘research up’ about the conduct of states and abuse by powerful people (Williams 2012).

Unfortunately it remains an enduring reality that children are often ‘caught in the crossfire’ of state failings. And they often realize what is happening. Sipho summed up the situation perfectly when he drew and quoted a traditional South African saying: “When elephants fight, it is the grass that gets crushed”.

References and Further Reading

BBC (2009) ‘Child drawings of Darfur’, BBC News Online, 4 March. Available online.

Beresford, D. (1989) ‘Row over mother of the nation - Winnie Mandela’, The Guardian, 27 January. Available online.

Cameron, H. (2010) ‘Genocide and the contextual evidence of children’, International State Crime Initiative. Available online.

Goodnow, J. (1977) Children’s drawing. London: Fontana

Green, P. and Ward, T. (2004) State crime: Governments, violence, and corruption. London: Pluto Press.

Harber, C. (2004) Schooling as violence. London: Routledge.

HRW (2011) “We have never seen such horror” Crimes against humanity by the Syrian security forces. New York: Human Rights Watch.

Nader, L. (1972) ‘Up the anthropologist’, in Hymes, D.H. (ed.) Reinventing anthropology, New York: Pantheon Books, pp. 284-311.

New York Times (1988) ‘Hangings now routine at Pretoria prison’, New York Times, 12 January. Available online.

NKN (2000) ‘Drawings by North Korean refugee children, North Korea Now. Available online.

Pridmore, P. & Rifkin, S.B. (2001) Partners in planning. London: Macmillan.

Swart, Jill (1990) Malunde: The street children of Hillbrow. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.

UN (2009) Universal Periodic Review of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. Available online.

UN (2012) Children and armed conflict. Available online.

UNICEF (1989) Children on the front line: The impact of apartheid, destabilization and warfare on children in southern and South Africa. New York: UNICEF.

UWC (1987) Peoples Education. Bellville: University of the Western Cape

Williams, C. (1990) PhD 'Street children and education', unpublished PhD thesis, University of Birmingham. Available at the British library.  

Williams, C. (2012) Researching power, elites and leadership. London: Sage.

WSCN (2007) ‘Senegal: marching for street children, World Street Children News, 20 April. Available online.


Further Reading


de Benitez, S.T. (2007) State of the world’s street children: violence. London: Consortium for street children.

Cairnes, E. (1996) Children and political violence. Oxford: Blackwell

Davies, L. (2004) Education and conflict. London: RoutledgeFowler.

Grewcock, M. (2012), ‘Public criminology, victim agency and researching state crime’, State Crime, 1(1), 109-125.

UNICEF (1989) Children on the front line: The impact of apartheid, destabilization and warfare on children in southern and South Africa. New York: UNICEF.

UN General Assembly (2011) Human Rights Council 16th Session. Agenda item 3: Rights of the child: a holistic approach to the protection and promotion of the rights of children working and/or living on the street. UN General Assembly, 18 March , A/HRC/16/L.13

UN General Assembly (2012) Human Rights Council 19th Session: Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the protection and promotion of the rights of children working and/or living on the streetUN General Assembly, 11 January, A/HRC/19/35


Draw and Tell

Backett-Milburn, K., and McKie, L. (1999) 'A critical appraisal of the draw and write technique'. Health Education Research: Theoryand Practice, 14, 387-398.

Gabhainn, S., and Kelleher, C. (2002) 'The sensitivity of the drawand write technique'. Health Education, 102(2), 68-75.

Pridmore, P. and Bendelow, G. (1995) 'Images of health: exploring beliefs of children using the "draw-and-write" technique'. Health Education Journal54473–488.

Pridmore, P. and Rifkin, S.B. (2001) Partners in planning. London: Macmillan.

Thomas, G. and Silk, A. (1990) An Introduction to the Psychology of Children's Drawings, London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.