Maverick Citizen

Who will look after the little children?

By Karin Schimke 28 May 2020

A boy in rural Ugu district in KwaZulu-Natal uses a playing block as a peep hole. Studies have shown that play in the early years advances performance later at the basic education level, because it allows children to exercise creativity and imagination and to develop dexterity, as well as physical, mental and emotional strength. Early Childhood Development centres don’t only look after children, but stimulate them and prepare them for school. (Photo: Ilifa Labantwana)

Between 20,000 to 30,000 early childhood development operators run the risk of closure, while up to 175,000 people in the ECD sector stand to lose their jobs in the absence of economic relief. Millions of children are at risk.

Karin Schimke

An ECD practioners works with children at Kopanang ECD centre in the rural Nquthu District of KwaZulu-Natal. Early Childhood Development centres offer more than just a safe place to leave small children while parents are out working. They provide an opportunity for children to socialise, to learn and to play. They also perform, in the poorest communities, the vital task of feeding children.
(Photo: Ilifa Labantwana)

School and work will resume to some degree from Monday 1 June, but no one who looks after children under six will be allowed to continue work.

This raises serious questions about child safety and focuses attention on the enormous role early childhood development (ECD) plays not only in families’ lives, but in the country’s economy and its prospects for social development.

Internationally, Covid-19 has thrown childcare, an area of life that is usually hidden, on to centre stage as parents have had childcare thrust on them during lockdown. Some of these parents have had to continue trying to work and others have lost their jobs, while all of them have had to take full-time responsibility for their children’s welfare and education. Childcare is usually hidden, people point out, because it is considered by society to be unimportant and unpaid women’s work.

“This is the first time that the importance of childcare has been shown to be a thing that cuts across class, race and income,” says Zaheera Mohamed, early childhood development financial officer at Ilifa Labantwana, an organisation working towards universal access to quality early childhood development.

Next week, many parents will be able to return to work but, as Mohamed says, “It is unclear how the economy is expected to open up en masse without the childcare sector opening alongside it.”

On 18 March this year, all ECD centres, playgroups and day mothers were instructed to stop operating. According to a report by Ilifa Labantwana, Nelson Mandela Foundation, ECD Congress and others, most ECD is supplied by non-profit organisations and micro-social enterprises.

Grace Matlhape, chief executive officer of Smartstart, an early learning social franchise, says many parents will return to work because they need to feed their families, but there will be nowhere for their children to go.

“The risk is that parents are then forced to leave their children in inappropriate, potentially risky, childcare. It is also likely that, under pressure from parents, ECD programmes will reopen beneath the radar. We don’t want this to happen because it will mean that we cannot get the support and resources to those programmes to help make them safe environments for children during the pandemic. It is much preferable for all ECD programmes to be allowed to open soon and in a properly managed way.”

A grandmother plays with children in her care at her home in the North West Province. Many Early Childhood Development operators are non-profit organisations and micro-social enterprises and are mostly run by black women providing a service in poor communities with limited cash flows. These women often earn below the minimum wage. At this point, they have no easy access to any of the economic relief packages offered by government and more than half of them might not be able to reopen once they government gives the green light for childcare to commence.
(Photo: Ilifa Labantwana)

The Department of Basic Education, which oversees the education of children from Grade 1 to Grade 12, has been actively involved in working on protocols with stakeholders for the safe reopening of schools for weeks. The Department of Social Development, the custodians of the welfare of children aged under six, however, had its first consultative meeting with stakeholders in the sector on Tuesday 27 May. During this meeting, attended by more than 50 experts and people representing various organisations, several workstreams were identified.

Asked whether eight weeks into the State of Disaster wasn’t rather late for the government to start formulating plans for how to restore childcare to the nation, Rex Molefe, director of Motheo Training Institute Trust and member of the National Early Childhood Development Alliance as well as of the government’s national ECD Inter-Sectoral Integrated Forum said: “Our pleas have been falling on deaf ears for weeks now.”

He and a range of other organising bodies have together compiled various reports that have been sent to the Presidency, Treasury and the Department of Social Development. He said the sector had approached the government, not with empty hands, but saying “we have capacity, we have expertise, we can monitor, let us help”.

“People on the ground are boiling. There’s been talk of litigation, but we thought we’d wait and see what happened at the meeting on Tuesday.

“We are grateful that the department has engaged us on the matter now and we don’t have a problem with the framework that was sent to us for feedback on Wednesday, but if we go according to that framework, ECD will only be able to come back online in months from now. It’s extremely unreasonable.”

On 18 March this year, all ECD centres, playgroups and day mothers were instructed to stop operating. According to a report by Ilifa Labantwana, Nelson Mandela Foundation, ECD Congress and others, most ECD is supplied by non-profit organisations and micro-social enterprises. Most of the people who work in the sector are black women, “providing a service that is needs-based in poor communities with limited cash flows, which places them below the minimum wage”.

A survey sent out to ECD operators and researchers received responses from over 8,500 providers within days. Of these, 99% reported that caregivers had stopped paying fees because of the lockdown, 83% said they were unable to pay their staff full salaries, 96% said their income was not sufficient to cover their operating costs, and 68% were concerned that they wouldn’t be able to reopen.

This means that 20,000 to 30,000 ECD operators run the risk of closure, while up to 175,000 people in the ECD sector stand to lose their jobs in the absence of economic relief. And millions of children are at risk.

The unintended consequences of the government ignoring the sector are terrifying, Molefe says.

“The informal ECD sector contributes to the gross domestic product and it delivers an essential service to parents and the economy, yet there is no relief for the sector because most of the care of children is done as social enterprises, and operators cannot access what amounts to ‘soft loans’ from the Solidarity Fund. They also cannot claim UIF.

“Meanwhile, I worry about the fact that there are children roaming the streets in townships. I worry about their psychological, emotional and physical regression while they are not being cared for properly. We all worry about stunting and malnutrition in children who rely on ECD centres for food.”

The first 1,000 days of a child’s life are the most important to ensure that children are in a position to thrive physically, emotionally and intellectually.

Rene King, chairperson of the National Early Childhood Development Alliance, (NECDA) says that during Covid-19, the lack of support from the government for this sector has “once again raised its head in the most alarming way”.

“It dramatically exposes the seriousness of the neglect suffered by this part of life in South Africa. Government just doesn’t have the money, the means or the systems to invest here, but perhaps this could be seen as a time of change once and for all.”

She called the services provided by ECD operators, who offer places of safety for children, where they are fed and protected and provided with opportunities for holistic development, a “socio-economic imperative”.

There are around six million children aged below five in South Africa, a figure that has remained stable for some years. Of these, four million receive the Child Support Grant, meaning that about two-thirds of the country’s children live in relative poverty.

The first 1,000 days of a child’s life are the most important to ensure that children are in a position to thrive physically, emotionally and intellectually. For optimal outcomes, five areas need to be attended to: maternal and child health, nutrition, support for the primary caregiver, social services and early stimulation.

It has been shown that children who receive quality ECD stay in school for longer and earn considerably higher than their peers. They enjoy better health and remain outside of the criminal justice system. Their lifelong contribution to the economy is far higher than individuals who did not benefit from quality ECD.

Before Covid-19, the state of ECD in South Africa was worrying for a variety of reasons. Although various studies show that investment in early childhood development has the highest return of all educational investment once the individual enters the job market, it remains the most pitifully financed of the three sections of education in South Africa.

Government subsidies every student in higher education in South Africa to the tune of around R56,000 per year. It spends around R17,500 on every learner at primary and high school. Yet it spends a mere R3,960 a year on every under six years of age, and that is only for less than 20% of children who are eligible to benefit.

The Centre for Early Childhood Development started a petition demanding the government announce dates for the reopening of ECD centres. According to this petition, around 2.3 million children attend around 32,000 ECD centres across the country and are cared for by about 100,000 ECD workers. The sector, according to the petition, contributes R10-billion to the South African economy annually.

Dr Colin Almeleh, executive director of Ilifa Labantwana, says: “The National Development Plan 2030 identified early childhood development as an apex priority, but this is not always reflected in practices.

“This crisis has exposed a ton about South Africa – much of it bad, some of it good. One of them is that our youngest citizens rarely seem to be the country’s priority.”

Mohamed adds: “The informal sector commonly works in difficult circumstances and so it is sometimes seen as normal, and that they are resourceful and that once the threat of Covid has passed, they should just be able to reopen. I feel that viewing it that way is extremely wrong and it’s patronising. They have been forced to operate in that way because – I want to emphasise this – of the government’s impossible compliance requirements. They want to force Sandton standards on an informal sector.”

“In an ideal world, what we need is a rescue package with all the equipment and resources required to operate safely so that the sector can continue to provide a service the country relies on: looking after our children in a safe environment while parents go out to earn money.”

She says for the sector to be able to open in a way that is safe and feasible for the practitioners, the children and health and safety, state intervention is absolutely critical.

“The requirements that are put in place have got to be based on scientific evidence and the science around Covid-19 infection rates among children shows that they are not vectors among themselves, that they are very asymptomatic, that they hardly get it and that it doesn’t really travel from them to adults all that easily.

“So, if that’s the case, how you approach requirements at site level has to be reasonable. And I’m deeply worried that the state’s response is not normally a reasonable one.”

She says that if the state is going to make requirements for reopening prohibitive, it will have to financially and practically support compliance with those requirements.

“They must help operators with water, sanitisers, gloves, and masks.”

King says: “In an ideal world, what we need is a rescue package with all the equipment and resources required to operate safely so that the sector can continue to provide a service the country relies on: looking after our children in a safe environment while parents go out to earn money.”

Matlhape says: “Taking the long view, one very real challenge facing the government is to stop the contraction of the ECD sector at the very time when the supply of ECD places needs to grow exponentially to meet the target of universal access [according to the NDP 2030]. It would be disastrous if ECD programmes had to close permanently because their owners and staff were forced to move into alternative employment in order to generate an income. This is a very real threat and one that could lead to many more poor children being denied access to ECD.”

Molefe says: “Covid-19 has exposed and amplified the problems in our society and, as always, the people who are the most at risk are the poorest, the women and the children, because the task of nurturing and protecting children for the future of this country has always fallen to black women.

“This sector is in dire straits and it is pleading with the government: help us. We have had no relief. And if you won’t help us, then at least let us operate. Trust us to do what we have always done: look after our children.” DM/MC

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