She had been a teenager for just two days when she was killed. My family suffered what no one should ever have to go through – the loss of a child. No parent should be put through this pain. It’s a pain, a suffering which is unimaginable. And when it happens, the feeling of helplessness you have is so crushing as to almost suffocate. Two years ago this month, my beautiful granddaughter Zenani was killed in a road crash. My family will never recover.
When she left that morning for the World Cup kick-off concert in Soweto, I had no idea that it would be the last time I’d see her. I can’t even remember if I said ‘I love you’ because we always used to say ‘love you lots like jelly tots’ to each other. I don’t remember what I said, I don’t even remember how long I hugged her for. You desperately try to reach for these memories and sometimes they start to fade away.
Yet there are reminders of Zenani every day. In sounds, smells, tastes. In everything. The opening of a school. One less child to send out in the morning. One less uniform to buy. One less set of pencils. Sitting alone at the table is Zenani’s younger brother – I’d normally prepare breakfast for both of them there. And now he is alone. No one deserves his loss, no family should suffer our pain.
But on the same day that Zenani was killed 1,000 families around the world lost a child in a road crash, their darkest fears realised. And every single day this is repeated again and again – 1,000 more families who will never see their children grow up. What people don’t realise is that the terrible daily slaughter on our roads is largely preventable. Yet we stand back and just let it happen. The children who are being killed - and the many thousands more every day who are injured - could and should have been protected.
It’s when you consider this, that you become aware of the far greater tragedy - the tragedy of our failure. I must confess that until it struck at the heart of my family, I was one of those members of the public to whom road accidents were just that: accidents, a terrible fact of life, simply accepted. I didn’t think about it like an activist, to say – what are we doing about this?
My family has long been associated with struggle. Our fight was for basic rights – the right to vote, the right to self-determination. Many people suffered greatly to achieve freedom in South Africa. But it is through suffering that you find the strength to take action.
So, we are taking action. And when you start looking for solutions to this particular human catastrophe, they are not hard to find. Road crashes don’t require a new vaccine, or years of research to design a remedy. The frameworks and practical policies to protect our children and prevent these tragedies are all already in existence, yet in many places they are simply not being put into practice.
It may sound surprising but across most of the world the human rights of children are entirely disregarded on a daily basis. And it is happening right in front of us, on our roads.
Children have no direct political voice, and are therefore dependent on adults, on wider society to keep them safe. They have a right to this protection, and we have a duty to provide it. This principle underpins the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. This framework for upholding children’s rights is clear, well established and universally recognised. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by nearly every country in the world and legally binding, is based on the understanding, as outlined in the text, that children need “special safeguards and care”. This includes the right to a ‘safe environment’.
Yet it is precisely at the point when children are most at risk, when they are closest to what is most likely to kill or disable them, that the Rights of the Child are most often neglected. It may come as a surprise to some that the greatest risk our children face as they grow out of infancy, the biggest killer, is road traffic injury. Worldwide, road injuries are the leading cause of death for children over the age of 10. More than 300,000 children and young people between the ages of 10 and 24 are killed on the world’s roads each year and a million more are permanently disabled. We are neglecting our children’s right to protection, indeed their very right to life, on a global scale.
So it is in Zenani’s name that my family is now campaigning and joining the Decade of Action for Road Safety to call for more to be done to protect children on the roads around the world. The solutions are right in front of us. It may be a safe crossing to school; a footpath to keep our little ones safe from speeding traffic; child helmet standards in those countries where the family transport is a motorbike; enforced legislation for child seats and seat-belts; or tougher action to prevent drink driving and speeding.
And we are making a start. Under the banner of the Zenani Mandela Campaign more than a dozen organisations, including the Road Safety Fund, the UN Environment Programme and the World Resources Institute came together at the recent Rio+20 Conference in Brazil to pledge action and resources to protect children on the roads and improve urban road environments. But much more is needed, and I call on companies, donors and the public to support our campaign.
The Zenani Campaign is important part of Mandela Day, the day – and the ongoing global campaign - to encourage people around the world to honour my father’s birthday with actions to help others in society.
We have an opportunity to commit ourselves to this new struggle for basic human rights, on every road of the world, so that other families to not have to suffer the tragedy that has befallen mine.
For the sake of thousands of young lives, we can and we must do far more.
Versions of this op ed have appeared in The Guardian and The Times of South Africa.
Zindzi and her daughter Zoleka Mandela are leading the Zenani Campaign