Maverick Citizen


President Ramaphosa, the future of early childhood development in South Africa is in your hands

President Ramaphosa, the future of early childhood development in South Africa is in your hands
The best-quality Early Childhood Development centre infrastructure is found in South Africa’s affluent communities. ECD centres in poorer communities face a contrasting reality. (Photo: Equal Education)

‘For each rand spent on a vulnerable child at an ECD centre, government spends R21 on a prisoner. This is a disgrace.’

Dear President Cyril Ramaphosa,

About one year ago, you wrote a piece on early childhood development (ECD) in your weekly newsletter, with the title “ECD holds the key to our future”. You highlighted the pivotal role that ECD centres and programmes play across South Africa.

As the ECD sector, we welcomed your comments and we saw these as very positive and were encouraged. Notwithstanding your fine words, the real test of your view lay in implementation and action, which was and still is critically needed. 

early childhood development

President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Elmond Jiyane / GCIS)

Former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma made similar comments about ECD when they were in office – however, with little actual benefit to vulnerable young children and their families.

Your presidential newsletter followed your opening of an ECD centre in Bizana, Eastern Cape, where, in your words, you were “…deeply touched by the dedication of the centre’s staff to supporting the community and its children”. You went on to say that the commitment of the ECD centre’s staff “is so important because early childhood development centres play a pivotal role in our nation’s development”.

In your written piece, you said that government had taken up the task to improve ECD in South Africa and make resources available for ECD centres to run suitable activities for young children. We strongly welcomed this and applauded you.

However, you now need to be informed of the real situation on the ground as it affects the ECD sector: the 42,420 ECD centres, with about 198,000 ECD principals, teachers and other staff; and the 1.66 million young children that attend these centres.

In the larger scheme of things, about 30% of young children in South Africa, aged birth to five, attend an ECD centre. 

The quality of ECD centres across South Africa is generally poor – this is directly linked to the socioeconomic capacity of the communities in which these centres are based.

The best-quality ECD centre infrastructure is found in South Africa’s affluent communities. 

ECD centres in poorer communities face a contrasting reality. These are the centres, staff and children that live in poverty with little-to-no support from government, untrained teachers, limited age-appropriate education equipment, a basic meal of little nutritional value once a day – if at all – and appalling salaries as low as R300 per month. This is outrageous, given the valuable work that they do.

These are also the 60% of ECD centres that are not registered, meaning they are not compliant with the Children’s Act or with the complex and burdensome municipal by-laws and regulations that pertain to ECD centres. 

These centres will never be eligible for the government’s meagre subsidy of R17 per qualifying child per day for 264 days a year. To qualify for the ECD subsidy, the parents’ joint income must be less than R7,600 per month, or less than R3,800 for a single parent.

In your newsletter, you made the erroneous comment that the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill proposed that it be compulsory for all children to receive two years of ECD provision before the start of Grade 1. There is no such thing in the Bill.

What you were referring to is making Grade R a compulsory year for all children, and this was welcomed and supported across our country. As an aside, the ECD sector, through various activists, first made this recommendation more than 20 years ago, but it was not acted upon.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The Thrive by Five Index — measuring what matters most for our children

So, what is the reality for the ECD sector and our youngest children? 

The recent Thrive by Five report informs us that only 35% of children entering Grade 1 are ready for school. This means that two-thirds of five-year-olds are not thriving, with 6% seriously not thriving. 

Extrapolating from the recent ECD Census, we see that about 70% of young children do not have access to a formal early learning programme before they enter Grade 1. This means that these children enter formal schooling with little preparation to acquire the early literacy, early numeracy and life skills that form such an important part of the Foundation Phase of formal schooling and children’s early development.

Part of this reality is that only 33% of ECD centres receive the ECD subsidy; 60% of ECD centres are not registered; just about half of the ECD teaching staff are qualified, and 23% of ECD centres have no books for children. 

You should be shocked.

Read more in Daily Maverick: First early childhood development census reveals underfunded and underqualified sector

There is a major flaw in the information that you are given by your ministers and staff about ECD. 

Three years ago, in October 2020, you made R1.3-billion available to the ECD sector as part of an ECD Employment Stimulus Relief Fund to help ECD centres recover from the loss of income during Covid-19. 

We now know that less than 19% of this amount reached the ECD sector. 

Of the R1.3-billion, R712-million was held back by National Treasury because the National Department of Social Development could not get a coherent plan together. 

The final amount received from National Treasury for the ECD sector was R588-million, of which R496-million was allocated to support ECD teacher salaries for 116,578 teachers. 

By 31 March 2022, only R245-million had found its way to ECD teachers and other staff. 

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

This was due to the cumbersome and bureaucratic application system put in place by the incompetent National Department of Social Development (responsible for the process at that time). 

Government has been extremely cagey in not making these figures publicly available. This is understandable, given that it shows a complete and appalling lack of concern for young children. 

Responsibility for ECD in South Africa transitioned to the Department of Basic Education on 1 April 2022, and we hope that this department will be more competent and caring.

President Ramaphosa, you should instruct the Department of Basic Education to retrieve the missing R1-billion from National Treasury and distribute it as intended. 

Your second focus should be to substantially increase the shockingly low ECD subsidy of R17 per qualifying child per day for 264 days of the year that is payable to registered ECD centres. 

As a comparison to the above, our government spends R363 per day, for 365 days of the year, on keeping each prisoner in jails across the country. 

For each rand spent on a vulnerable child at an ECD centre, government spends R21 on a prisoner. This is a disgrace.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Limited state subsidisation remains a key challenge to delivering quality learning programmes

ECD is a pivotal area in South Africa, as you say. Parents contribute about R10.2-billion each year to the economy by way of ECD fees. About 198,000 ECD-related jobs, overwhelmingly for women, have been created by communities at no cost to government – not one cent.

President Ramaphosa, we are informing you that there is a vibrant, skilled and talented nonprofit sector working in ECD. 

This sector has many decades of experience and highly competent individuals who can make ECD opportunities a reality for every young child. 

You have to lead from the front and you have to get the Department of Basic Education to work closely with the nonprofit ECD sector.

Our country has signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, and we have an excellent National Integrated ECD Policy, which Cabinet approved in December 2015. 

The sad reality is that this policy is not being implemented, simply because there is no political will or budget allocation to do so. And we do not have sufficient numbers – with some exceptions – of skilled, competent and committed public officials to implement the policy. 

To meet our commitment to the documents South Africa has signed, and to the current ECD policy, you must instruct National Treasury to substantially increase funding for ECD. 

Currently, less than 3% of Basic Education expenditure is targeted at ECD. This has to change radically in the interest of and for the well-being of our youngest children.

Mr President, the ECD nonprofit sector is ready to follow your Thuma Mina request.

We must remember the profound comment by the late visionary Oliver Tambo: “A country, a movement, a person that does not value its youth and children does not deserve its future.”

President Ramaphosa, the future of early childhood development in South Africa is in your hands.


Eric Atmore. DM

Eric Atmore is the founding director of the Centre for Early Childhood Development and Extraordinary Associate Professor in Education Policy Studies at Stellenbosch University.


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