How unwell South African children found their voices — and others around the world. During the pandemic, they’re running their own internet radio station from a Cape Town hospital studio.

28 November 2020 By Paul Martin

RX Radio has given children the opportunity to voice their opinions and understand others

By Luzuko Sonkapu.

This article was submitted to the Media Monitoring Africa Isu Elihle Awards.

I’m an 18-year-old with a chronic illness, spinal muscular atrophy, and at the start of lockdown in March it was better for me to move to my family’s village in the Eastern Cape to escape the overcrowding in my Cape Town neighbourhood and the city’s rapidly climbing infection rate.

Luzuko Sonkapu, who has spinal muscular atrophy, says being able to express himself and be heard helped him to cope during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Luzuko Sonkapu, who has spinal muscular atrophy, says being able to express himself and be heard helped him to cope during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Image: RX Radio

Since I am in matric and my illness gives me a higher chance of being severely affected by Covid-19, I was in a really bad position. But I wasn’t alone.

The lockdown affected children socially, emotionally and physically. Many suffered in silence because their voices were not heard and their questions rarely answered.

In this respect, however, I was fortunate. Even though I was in the Eastern Cape, I was able to make my voice heard and share some of my fears by participating in RX Radio’s Covid-19 programming.

The RX Radio studio at Cape Town's Red Cross Children's Hospital.

Based at Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Cape Town, the internet radio station is by and for children, and provides 24 hours of content a day, ranging from music to podcasts and public-service announcements.

During the pandemic, the team has been working remotely to produce content for the Children’s Voices on Covid-19 programming.

Children all over the world have been able to use the platform to share their experiences, produce public-service announcements, speak to health-care workers and listen to the experiences of Covid survivors.

After three years as an RX Radio young reporter, I now know that this type of engagement helps children to avoid feeling isolated or out of control of their situation.

Coming back to Cape Town from the Eastern Cape, I was cautious about moving around, to the point where I missed three hospital check-ups. Again, RX Radio helped.

“We tried to communicate in a way that patients and families could understand,” said Red Cross medical manager Dr Anita Parbhoo. “As we gained new information, we shared it with our patients and staff. We used posters, videos and in-person discussions with caregivers, patients and staff.

“We also had a weekly show on RX Radio, where our communications officer interacted with the child presenters and explained various aspects around Covid to the listeners.”

After speaking to my doctors about the process leading up to my check-up, I worked up the courage to make my first hospital visit since the start of lockdown. There was a clearly communicated plan for me, people were patient and I felt listened to. 

This is what Parbhoo said about the value of children’s voices: “We all agree that it is important for the hospital and society to hear what children have to say, as they often have some great insights into how things can be made better for them.”

Children, some of whom are future leaders, are often not taken seriously, sapping their self-confidence. That is why platforms such as RX Radio are vital.

Malikah Swail is a matric pupil at Elsies River High School in Cape Town and a member of a youth group put together by Western Cape children’s commissioner Christina Nomdo. The association allows youth to discuss children’s rights, learn about the constitution and talk about matters affecting them.

“What makes me feel good is that we listen to each other and give our input on certain topics … I always look forward to our sessions as we all interact in the discussions,” said Malikah.

“This project is such a good initiative for teenagers, especially the ones who do not know what their rights are, and [it] teaches them to allow their voices to be heard.”

Malikah and her peers wrote to President Cyril Ramaphosa about their fears around the reopening of schools during the pandemic and the long- and short-term effects on teachers and pupils.

“I believe that decisionmakers barely even acknowledge the opinion of children with regards to decision-making in general and it shows in so many respects,” said Malikah.

President Cyril Ramaphosa in the RX Radio studio during a visit to the Red Cross Children's Hospital in Cape Town.

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa in the RX Radio studio during a visit to the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town.
Image: RX Radio

The issue of education was especially frustrating for me. Initially, lockdown was an opportunity to rest, reflect and study, but as time went by I began stressing about the delay in resuming my school work.

Working from home was the best option for maintaining distance, but there were issues of data, the quality of connection and being able to focus in a house full of people. I felt like I was struggling without my teachers around me because I was missing the explanations I get in class.  

RX Radio presenter Saadiq Daniels.

RX Radio presenter Saadiq Daniels.
Image: RX Radio

My experience was shared by 16-year-old Saadiq Daniels, another RX Radio young reporter and one of Malikah’s peers on the Western Cape Children’s Commission Government Monitors.

“Home learning was a bit tough as we did not get lessons every day,” said Saadiq, who has cerebral palsy and is wheelchair-bound. “This is not the same as sitting in class where we all interact and learn from each other. Fortunately, my mom and sister could assist me with my work.”  

Closer to the matric exams, which I am now writing, I believe I was able to find a better compromise because I had more of a choice. I could decide for myself when to go to school and prepare myself for when I chose to study at home. I took my time going back to school, waiting to feel comfortable about leaving home. Now I’m back at boarding school part time, which lessens the need to travel.

When I feel heard and involved in decisions that involve me, it makes dealing with issues and tasks more meaningful. I am more confident because I know someone else’s opinion was not pushed onto me.

Saadiq agrees that “children have a voice and should be listened to. The constitution says children should be heard and listened to. I fully agree with this statement as we also experience a lot of things and have a right to disagree and express how we feel.”

Though the pandemic brought many negatives, it has allowed me to be involved in more child-centred conversations. Just writing this article as part of the Isu Elihle Awards allows me to practise using my voice and to publicise a platform for children to share their experiences.

RX Radio young reporter Alaweyah Mogali.

RX Radio young reporter Alaweyah Mogali.
Image: RX Radio

Earlier in the pandemic, I was able to join fellow RX Radio young reporters Talitha Counter and Alaweyah Mogali in a global platform at the World Health Organisation (WHO) Reboot Health and Wellbeing Innovation Challenge.

The experience showed me the positive outcome of working to show that my voice matters because I was able to be on the same platform as international delegates and lead a conversation for children as a young person.

When we are too young to vote, our voice is all we have. Being able to express yourself, to have the confidence to talk to adults and take charge of expressing how you feel are valuable life skills that can improve how we see ourselves in the future.

It is important to include children in global conversations, too, so we can help with child-based solutions for child-centred problems.

Being part of RX Radio has shown me how important it is to talk about my condition and my experience. It allows me to feel understood and in control of my identity, while helping others like me feel less alone and those unlike me understand me better.

During the pandemic I was able to assert myself and communicate with the people around me what was best for me in situations that caused me the most stress.

The RX Radio team at the Red Cross Children's Hospital in Cape Town.

 The RX Radio team at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town.
Image: RX Radio

Talitha, Saadiq, Malikah and Alaweyah all have the privilege of being part of spaces where child expression is encouraged. Because of that, they have been able to articulate their views on different platforms with confidence.

Children’s voices and child participation work better than adults speaking on behalf of children on child-focused issues. Giving children opportunities to speak for themselves encourages other children to do the same.

And it makes issues that often seem too big more accessible to us.