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How party manifestos tackle the plight of children and where activists say they fall short

How party manifestos tackle the plight of children and where activists say they fall short
Pupils at the Kwa-Zubumnandi Pre-School in Durban on 18 January 2023. The Equal Education Law Centre and Equal Education took a hard look at the different political manifestos when it came to children, raising red flags associated with their policies, including on education. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)

A national election year could be a time for political parties to address the crisis facing children by offering the nation a new path towards ending child poverty. Here’s a look at how some party manifestos deal with issues relating to children.

In South Africa 25% of all children face a life of poverty, unemployment or low-paying work, simply because they never got enough to eat.

Those one in four children suffer from stunting brought on by malnutrition and it is a disorder that stubbornly maintains a grasp on our society even in a time when the social grant system should have wiped it out.

In fact, over the past three decades, stunting levels have changed little, says Merwyn Abrahams, the programme director at the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity Group.

“This is one of the scariest statistics in South Africa today because it is the biggest impediment to socioeconomic development going forward,” he explains.

The reason for this is that besides a lack of nutrition, stunted growth also impedes cognitive development.

“It is more likely that those children will enter the workforce as labourers in a fast-changing global economy and world of work because of their cognitive impairment,” says Abrahams.  

For him, the presence of such high levels of malnutrition shows that the current welfare system with its various grant interventions for children is not working as it should.

But with national elections it could be a time to address the crisis by offering the nation a new path towards ending child poverty.

The various election manifestos do provide a glimpse into how political parties plan to deal with issues relating to children, but many of these documents are vague and give little detail.

The big three parties – the ANC, DA and EFF – do address children in their manifestos.

The ANC says it would give “special attention to the responsibilities of the family in raising children”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Political party manifestos say very little about the current media crisis — why?

The ruling party would also protect the value of social grants for children and ensure universal access to quality early child development (ECD) by 2030. The manifesto also says it would improve the quality of education.

The DA will, according to its manifesto, increase the child support grant to the same level as the official food poverty line. This would mean an increase from R510 to R760.

Also it wants to improve the foundational skills of reading and numeracy. Its manifesto includes plans to improve access to Grade R and address school overcrowding through taking its Western Cape Rapid School Building programme national.  

This building programme works through partnerships with contractors, various government departments and school communities.

The EFF has a detailed manifesto relating to children. The party, if it comes to power, wants to develop a common ECD curriculum “focusing on nutrition programmes, book reading and storytelling, and other land-based activities to enhance children’s understanding of their surrounding environment”.

Powering this initiative will be an additional 40,000 ECD practitioners recruited by 2027.

Under an EFF government, each pupil will receive a tablet loaded with their education material. There will also be one educational system, with the Independent Examinations Board abolished.

The EFF will establish specialised autism schools, and if it wins the elections, will provide two nutritious meals a day in every school by next year.

It will also enhance security at all schools. The red berets want to push up the grant for child support from R510 to R1,020

Each police station will also have officers with specialised skills to deal with sexual violence involving children.

In a document, advocacy groups Equal Education Law Centre and Equal Education took a hard look at the different political manifestos when it came to children and offered a critique.

Part of this critique was in raising red flags associated with each party’s policies.  

A red flag regarding the ANC manifesto is that it plans to overhaul the immigration system as laid out in the White Paper on Immigration.  

This details the building of refugee and asylum centres close to the border and outlines plans that would infringe on certain social economic rights of migrants.

A red flag raised over the DA manifesto concerns its plan to expand the collaboration school model, which involves private partnerships with public schools so as to provide better resources and governance expertise.

The problem, according to the groups, is that they believe decision-making powers would be handed to private partners, and this would undermine democratic governance and accountability.

The red-flag critique of the EFF’s manifesto involves three of its proposed policies. The first is the creation of specialised autism schools, which would separate these pupils from their peers.

“This deviates from our vision of a truly inclusive education system in which learners with different abilities learn from and alongside one another,” the document reads.

Another red flag is the criminalisation of parents who don’t send their children to school. This policy, they say, doesn’t consider the reasons a child is not in school, including threats to the child’s safety.

The Equal Education Law Centre and Equal Education also believe the proposed single-school system would undermine the freedom of both parents and pupils when it comes to the forms of education and qualifications they want to choose.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Manifestos on tackling GBV — not much beyond ‘knee-jerk reactions’ pandering to populism, say experts

The Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity Group releases a monthly Household Food Basket that tracks the cost of a number of basic items that a low-income family of seven needs to survive.

Over the past couple of years the index has shown that inflation continues to outstrip what is provided by the various social grants.    

“With a child support grant, you can’t feed that child a proper meal. There is just never enough,” Abrahams says.

But dealing with South Africa’s stunting crisis will take more than just feeding children. Abrahams believes pregnant women need to be included in a child feeding scheme too.  

Malnutrition begins in the womb.

The DA’s manifesto states that it would extend the child grant to pregnant mothers to support child nutrition goals.

To win the battle against child poverty, Abrahams believes, requires a total overhaul of the system.

Currently, he explains, grants only allow families to buy the basics, to survive. But if grants were bigger, it could allow families to start a business from which they can generate an income.

Pilot studies have shown that people who are given cash transfers often start doing this.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Party manifestos give LGBTQIA+ community short thrift, say activists amid fears rights may be reversed

“Everyone says there is no budget for this, but we can restructure our country’s budget; let’s get a political vision of where South Africa will be 30 years from now, and structure our budget in such a way that we can achieve that,” Abrahams says.

Many activists and academics who are on the ground dealing with socioeconomic problems associated with children see manifestos as merely wish lists with little detail on how they will be put into action. Many feel that schools and the education system need funding.

“We’ve conducted research in a number of schools, looking at why children are bullying and displaying unruly behaviour,” says Dr Shaheda Omar, clinical director of the Teddy Bear Foundation, a child abuse NGO.

“What is interesting is that we found that many were fighting so that they could get a chair in the classroom, so they can listen to the lesson.”

Child protection activist Dr Dee Blackie adds: “I think the most important thing is for a political party to actually invest in the care and protection of children, which none of them are doing at the moment. Actually, all we’re seeing at the moment is the systematic defunding of child protection.”

The Equal Education Law Centre and Equal Education also put forward a number of educational policies they felt should be highlighted in this election’s party manifestos.

These included ensuring that all schools have safety infrastructure, with security guards and safety officers, and that there is adequate psychosocial support for children.

The groups would also want a commitment from political parties to build more classrooms with additional teachers to fill them, as well as the eradication of latrine toilets and allowing all pupils to not only attend school but participate equally regardless of their race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation or documentation status.  

A manifesto, they believe, should also acknowledge the ongoing admission crisis with a plan to address it.

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections

There should also be increased funding and support for ECD programmes.

But as with many issues around policy, it comes down to how it will all be implemented.

“For me, the concern is that we are a reactive-responsive society. So, you know, we attend to the crisis and we deal with the trauma, but we are not attending to preventing it,” says Omar.  

However, a great number of South Africa problems stem from dire poverty that cuts across a large swathe of the population.  

“We can never resolve South Africa’s overall poverty rate in the long term without properly addressing the issue of child poverty,” Abrahams says. DM

This reporting is supported through a Media Monitoring Africa fellowship.

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