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Plea for extension: Most workers in early childhood development will not benefit from government relief fund

Early childhood development centre owners picket outside the Department of Social Development offices in Johannesburg on 20 August 2020. (Photo: Ayanda Mthethwa)

Concerns are mounting that most of South Africa’s early childhood development workforce will not be able to benefit from the presidency’s ECD employment stimulus relief fund as the application deadline of 19 February fast approaches.

For months, the early childhood development (ECD) sector has been in desperate need of financial support from the department of social development (DSD).

ECD services have either been forced to close or do not have the means to reopen following Covid-19-related closures, and operators of ECD services have been unable to pay their staff.

On 5 February 2021, DSD finally announced the launch of the much-needed Early Childhood Development Employment Stimulus Relief Fund (ECD-ESRF/ECD relief fund) – an emergency relief fund of R496-million aimed at providing income support to 108,833 ECD workers.

The ECD relief fund seeks to offer relief to all types of ECD services, including ECD centres and non-centre based ECD programmes (play groups, toy libraries, childminders and mobile ECD programmes) that are registered, unregistered or conditionally registered.

However, while members of the ECD community – who have been lobbying government for urgent relief to save the ECD workforce since the start of lockdown – welcome the announcement, they have not yet breathed a sigh of relief.

Theodora Lutuli, owner of Khanyisa nursery school in Nyanga and Inkwenkwezi Educare in the Western Cape, and chairperson of the Ubumbano ECD forum, reports that while practitioners were excited when the president announced a relief stimulus package, little did [they] know the headache it brought along…” 

ECD services were given just two weeks to apply for relief funding (applications opened on 5 February and close this Friday, 19 February 2021) – too short a time to navigate the onerous application process, which is administratively burdensome and excludes the majority of South Africa’s ECD workforce – operating informal, unregistered ECD services – from being able to access relief funding in time.

Lutuli articulates the prevailing question on the ground: “Who is the relief intended for if the process to access it is impossible for so many?”

When applying, conditions that must be met include:

  • ECD services not currently funded by DSD must register on the government’s central supplier database (CSD) in order to apply. This step must be completed before completing the application form.
  • All applicants must have a bank account in the name of the ECD centre or ECD programme.
  • Applicants must provide an undertaking to register if the ECD programme is unregistered (a process that is notoriously onerous).
  • Applicants must agree to reopen ECD services within 60 days of receiving relief funding if the ECD service still remains closed due to Covid-19.

It is unclear why the CSD system, which is not at all fit for purpose, has been chosen as a means of accessing the relief funding.

The CSD is a database of organisations, institutions and individuals who can provide goods and/or services to government. The CSD registration process is complicated and applicants have raised concern that the database is only available in English and contains complex terminology that is not easy to understand.

The ECD relief fund constitutes temporary emergency relief and registration on the government CSD supplier database should not be a prerequisite to receiving support.

According to Sai Naicker, the principal of Butterflies Babycare and Educare in Durban, there are “no clear instructions on how to do the various applications and someone would need to constantly search online for additional information in order to understand what is being asked of the applicant”.

Patsy Pillay, director of the New Beginnings Training & Development Organisation in Durban, notes, “Surely government could have found an easier system to verify and pay the sites. The question is, do they understand the reality on the ground?”

Requiring all applicants to have a bank account in the name of the ECD centre or ECD programme also excludes the vast number of ECD services that operate on a cash basis, or have a bank account in an individual’s name.

ECD principal and Grassy Park ECD forum chairperson, Yumna Allie, confirms this, saying that the requirements regarding bank accounts are presenting a significant problem. She says that many ECD services “operate with a personal bank account because they are allowed to do so as a small business”.

Additional concerns with the application process include that it can only be completed online, leaving those without a sufficient level of computer literacy, access to data or internet, and access to a computer or laptop unable to apply.

Allie said the majority of the members of the Grassy Park ECD forum “don’t have access to the internet or money for data. They are going to have to borrow money for data or go to an internet café where they can get access”.

Naicker said the technical skills required for this application were beyond the capacity even of people with advanced computer abilities, requiring additional support from multiple individuals, video tutorials and specific how-to guides.

People are also struggling to complete the application process using their phones, with many practitioners reporting additional technical glitches on the mobile site specifically (which is the main source of internet connectivity for target beneficiaries).

The requirements to register on the CSD system and open a bank account in the name of the ECD service, while having to grapple with technological requirements, are all stalling the application process and making it impossible for many.

As at 15 February 2021, of the 29,836 ECD principals/owners who started the application process, only 9,717 people have successfully completed their applications. This demonstrates a completion rate of about 33%.

There are still thousands of ECD centres and programmes that have not been able to start the application process.

Pillay notes that “… after [11] months without support, working with meagre resources, and battling to keep their ECD sites open, the poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable sector of our country that cares for our children, may not meet the deadline.”

The ECD relief fund aims to pay 108,833 ECD workers: however, as of 15 February 2021, only 46,661 – or 43% – of ECD workers have been able to register to receive relief funding. This is a dire situation.

Apart from the problematic bank account, CSD system and technological requirements, the conditions requiring unregistered applicants to agree to register, and requiring an undertaking from all applicants that ECD services must reopen within 60 days of receiving the relief funding, are also concerning.

The process of registration (or even simply applying for registration) is onerous. Accordingly, many unregistered providers would be reluctant to agree to this without understanding the implications of such an agreement.

Moreover, the inappropriateness of making registration a precondition for accessing temporary emergency relief funding also comes into question when such relief should be available to all ECD services, notwithstanding registration status.

Where the 60-day reopening condition is concerned, it is important to note that the ECD relief fund must be used to pay workers and cannot be used to cover the costs of reopening, which may include buying food for children, paying for water and electricity, providing PPE and ensuring that all the necessary safety protocols are in place.

For this reason, the relief funding may mean little for ECD services that remain closed with no means of reopening. DSD has informed the public that a failure to meet the conditions of reopening may result in sanctions being imposed.

Support is also limited to a once-off maximum payment of R4,470 per staff member, with ECD centres only able to receive a maximum amount equivalent to supporting four staff members, and non-centre based ECD programmes only able to receive a maximum amount equivalent to supporting one staff member.

Given the size of the ECD workforce, this financial relief will not be widespread, and for practitioners who have been without an income since March 2020, the support will not be enough to cover mounting expenses and unpaid bills.

The limited availability of funds will also require DSD to prioritise relief funding where the number of applicants exceeds the funds available (an inevitability, given the size and needs of the sector).

In this case, registered ECD programmes and unregistered programmes which participated in the Vangasali campaign (to identify and register unregistered ECD programmes) will be given priority, once again, potentially leaving unregistered ECD programmes behind.

Mmatsetshuweu Ruby Motaung, executive director of Training and Resources in Early Education (TREE), illuminates these concerns when she says the main reasons why many ECD centres closed “was beyond just the salary”.

In a scenario where the 60-day commitment is in place, if a single ECD principal received the full R4,470, she would need to commit this money to reopening the centre, committing to all the costs that made her shut down in the first place, which, in fact, would leave no relief for the individual.

The ECD relief fund aims to pay 108,833 ECD workers: however, as of 15 February 2021, only 46,661 – or 43% – of ECD workers have been able to register to receive relief funding. This is a dire situation.

There are less than two days left to register ECD workers on the online system. If the deadline is missed, the money will be lost.

Jennifer McQuillan, owner and principal of Under the Son nursery school, in Randpark Ridge, Randburg, makes the ECD sector’s request clear. She states, “(W)e need more time so that the monies allocated for the funding can actually reach those who need it most.”

If DSD wants to ensure that as many ECD services benefit from the relief fund as possible, it is essential that as a first (and by no means last) step, the application deadline of 19 February 2021 be extended to allow applicants time to fulfil the extensive application requirements.

Additional time has been requested from DSD – the ECD community waits to see whether DSD will heed the unified call for such extension and a possible simplification of the application process. DM/MC

Astrid Coombes is an attorney and legal researcher at the Equal Education Law Centre. Yusrah Ehrenreich is an attorney and the Head of Advocacy, Lobbying and Social Justice at the Centre for Early Childhood Development.

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