Zuma’s proposal to send teenage parents to Robben Island condemned

JOHANNESBURG – Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa, is facing calls to apologise after proposing that teenage parents be separated from their babies and banished to Robben Island, notorious as a jail during the apartheid era.

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Jacob Zuma. South Africa's opposition Democratic Alliance criticised his comments, saying: 'As the holder of the highest office in the land, the president has done an embarrassing, and offensive disservice to the country’s teenage pregnancy crisis.'

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Zuma, whose political career has been punctuated by gaffes about women and gay people, was responding to a debate on his annual address to traditional leaders when he referred to teenage parents.

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“They must be taken and be forced to go to school, far away,” he was quoted as saying by the South African Press Association (Sapa). “They must be educated by government until they are empowered and they can take care of their kids; take them to Robben Island or any other island, sit there, study until they are qualified to come back and work to look after their kids.”

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Robben Island, off Cape Town, has a tortuous history including spells as a leper colony, quarantine station, mental hospital and political prison that incarcerated Nelson Mandela and Zuma himself during white minority rule. It now hosts a museum and has a small resident population.

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The president acknowledged that he came under fire when he first expressed such views during his election campaign six years ago. But allowing teenagers to leave school was proving an untenable burden on society and the welfare state, he added.

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“The women protested, ‘I want to take their kids away from them and blah, blah, blah.’ So I kept quiet, because I was saying in no way can you have young kids being mothers of other kids and young boys being fathers of kids, they know nothing of it.”

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South Africa’s biggest opposition party called on Zuma to apologise to the nation. Phumzile van Damme, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Alliance, said: “As the holder of the highest office in the land, the president has done an embarrassing, and offensive disservice to the country’s teenage pregnancy crisis and his government’s role in addressing the socio-economic problems that underpin it.”

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She added: “The president’s comments are devoid of any responsible solutions to curbing teenage pregnancy, which require that we adopt a whole of society approach involving all stakeholders in developing young people with the aim of producing responsible, skilled and well-resourced adults.

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“Actual prevention of teenage pregnancy is far more difficult than making wild statements about separating young mothers from their children, as President Zuma has chosen to do … The president’s comments are not only irresponsible, but expose a deep-seated patriarchal thinking behind his words.”

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As criticism mounted on social media, Zuma’s office issued a statement claiming he had not singled out girls for criticism. “President Zuma was emphasising the need for teenagers to focus on their studies and said children should not be raising children,” it said. “In his remarks he referred to both boys and girls. The statements by commentators that the president singled out girl children only for criticism with regards to teenage pregnancy is incorrect.” – Guardian