I feel a sense of sadness in coming here this evening to accept the petitions of the thousands of South Africans who are taking a stand and voicing their distress at the high incidence of child abuse and child rape within our country. I recognise that by handing me these petitions tonight, you are bestowing on me a tremendous responsibility. As a representative of Government, I wish to acknowledge your voice and assure you that I will bring these petitions to the attention of my colleagues in Government. Yet at the same time, I am aware of being the wrong man. I am not the Minister who should be here. I am not the one with the direct line function responsibility to address this issue. But I am deeply moved by the severity and magnitude of the problem we face, and I am committed to seeing the tide turned on the abuse of our children.

I trust that the issue of child abuse and child rape has become so vivid and so real through our media reports, and so pressing through the outcry of our people, that our Government is finding its conscience pricked. I must agree with you that Government has not done enough to stop this tragedy from unfolding. Government can do more. However, I also believe that we can do more as civil society. Therefore, as you petition me, I also petition you. My petition to you is that you keep marching, keep speaking, keep petitioning, until mind-sets change and attitudes are corrected in the very heart of our communities.

We must build a new alliance between all components of our society to face this evil together, and together to overcome it. Regardless of how much legislation Government adopts or how many international conventions it enters into to protect women and children, unless we change individual, collective and community attitudes the successful implementation of these provisions of law will remain elusive. All civilizations have marked their path of individual and collective growth through the awareness of and respect for the importance of life and the dignity of a single individual. We need to recreate the awareness that we are a united and continuous society and whatever happens within our society must and will affect all of us. I believe that our coming here tonight speaks of that awareness.

Yet the fact that we should need to gather, summoned by such unspeakable tragedy, likewise exposes the depth of moral decay and despair within our society. If we had come here in empathy with the victim of a once-off brutal crime, we could weep and grieve and perhaps begin to heal. But instead, we stand here bewildered and unable to comprehend that this tragedy plays out again and again, throughout our country, every hour, every day. I cannot find words to express my horror. I simply know this; it is wrong. It is wrong and I cannot accept it. I appreciate that so many people have responded to the call by Finesse magazine to come here this evening, and I thank the management team of Finesse for organising an event of such grave relevance to our lives.

I myself am a father and a grandfather. I know the desperate instinct to protect my children from anything that could hurt them. I cannot fathom that someone could see the precious lives of my children and seek to destroy them. Indeed, this is a difficult subject for me to address, because I feel so strongly about it. But I am also aware that those of us who feel as strongly as I do are the very people who must take their stand, make their voice heard, and make the difference for our children. It is we who know right from wrong who must raise a standard of morality and stop the abuse of our children. Knowing this, I felt compelled to open a debate in Parliament earlier this month focusing Government’s attention on child abuse and child rape. I want to push this issue forward as a top priority of our Government. We ignore this issue at irretrievable cost.

We have embraced the campaign for moral regeneration called for by our Deputy President Mr Jacob Zuma. We have acknowledged that there is a social crisis whereby our very future is being destroyed. On June 24 the National Assembly adopted a report of the Task Group on the Sexual Abuse of Children, which outlines a comprehensive course of action for our Government to follow and details the responsibility of each relevant line function. We were shocked by the revelation of how many of our children are being abused, how frequently and with how little consequence to the perpetrators. Our sensibilities have been heightened and we have echoed the outcry of our people. But I believe that Government can still do more, and I have said this in Parliament.

It is really about the allocation of resources. I believe that condemnation and remedial action must go hand in hand. We must pour greater resources into the front line, providing better training and support for our police officers and social workers. Theirs is an emotionally demanding job and they need our support. We must look at our justice system and do what it takes to ensure that this crime is hounded with appropriate consequences for every perpetrator, every time. But we must also recognise that the root causes of this hideous phenomenon run deep into conditions of social and economic under-development and a break-down in the social and moral fibre of our communities. Therefore we must accept that remedial action cannot come exclusively from what Government can do.

The effort to stop the abuse of our children must run horizontally throughout all the building blocks of our society, including churches, work-places, community organizations and families. Your coming here tonight shows that there is a real commitment already present at community level. I am pleased that we are calling on one another, and acknowledging our own role and responsibility together with the responsibility we share as a nation. We need to change the long entrenched attitudes and mind-sets, and move our people away from brutality and forward into a new moral matrix capable of holding together our communities as we struggle to uplift them from a social and economic viewpoint. It might be the case that moral upliftment and spiritual renewal must come first, before we can successfully address the issues of social and economic change.

The tip of the iceberg of child rape and child abuse lies in the ocean of poverty, abject socio-economic conditions, under-development, human degradation and ignorance for lack of education, knowledge and exposure. Below the surface, this iceberg consists of a deep-seated lack of respect for women and children, mixed with despair. Compounding the problem is substance abuse, mainly in the form of alcoholism. These are issues we must address.

I believe that child abuse and child rape are the manifestation of long entrenched attitudes and acquired ways of thinking. Having lived through the brutality and savage violence of the internecine conflict in the 80s and 90s within our communities, I can bear testimony to the fact that - inconceivable as it may seem -an entire generation can be made accustomed to brutality as being part of the only reality they know. The dreadful truth is that people find the basis for what is acceptable within the reality they experience. Therefore, each time I hear of another case of child abuse, each time I am confronted with the horror of another life being destroyed, I feel a fear growing that our society may come to accept this as part of our every-day experience, almost as if it were a South African fact of life. I know that people like you and I will never accept the abuse of our children, but even we may be numbed by the tide of despair in defence of everything we believe to be good and right and fair. We cannot allow that to happen.

Therefore, I appreciate the joint efforts of the women of the ATKV and Finesse magazine to help break the cycle of child abuse and child rape. I believe that every signature on every petition is a voice that joins the collective cry in South Africa to stop the abuse of our children. Tonight, many of us are wearing white to symbolise our commitment, and, I feel, also as a reminder of the purity and innocence of the lives we are here to protect. With these lives in mind, I accept your petitions both with gratitude and solemnity. As a representative of our Government, I am committed to take your voice to where it will be heard. In speaking out, I pray that we can make a difference. Together, let us right the wrongs on behalf of our children. Together, let us stop the abuse.