Opinionista Herman Mashaba 21 June 2016

Early learning centres can unlock Joburg’s potential

Early learning centres can take care of children during their most important developmental phase, and ease the burden from the shoulders of township moms and dads.

I lost my father when I was two years old. My mother was a domestic worker who worked away from home, in Johannesburg, for months on end just to put food on our table.

We never had a house of our own. We were forced to live in the homes of migrant workers when they were away working in Johannesburg. While this was not the most stable environment, it gave me a sense of personal independence from a young age – and perhaps a touch of audacity.

Yet I always knew that education was the key to making a better life for myself.

And so I worked hard to be admitted to the University of the North in 1979 to study for a Bachelor of Administration, majoring in public administration and political science.

In the second year of my studies, the army arrived on campus to quell unrest and we were given six hours to leave. The university decreed that we could only come back if we signed a letter undertaking to desist from political activity. I refused to sign it and abandoned my dream of becoming a political scientist, ending up a businessman.

Looking back, I’m still tinged with sadness that I never got to complete my university degree. But I always channel and harness these experiences – what Pope John Paul called “teachable moments”. I know that every part of my programme for office will come to naught unless we fix education. I am determined that no child in Johannesburg will be left behind.

There are many ways that hard infrastructure can be funded, built and maintained, as we’ve heard in the election campaign. Education however is the most important soft infrastructure; it is about equipping children and young people for a competitive economy and a happy society.

You can create the latter via an inclusive economy, which is built upon an inclusive education system. Some trees, to use Eleanor Roosevelt’s lovely metaphor, will, of course, grow taller than others. But even the strongest sapling needs to be watered and tended. To take the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child”, forward, it requires the building blocks at the local level to unlock the freedom of the individual. That’s why I believe local government has such an important role to play in education.

While it is often difficult to pinpoint the causes of a broken society like ours, plainly there is a strong link with schoolchildren’s failure and a predisposition to crime, drugs, homelessness and ill-health. Last week, I wrote about drug abuse. I’ve no doubt that many drug addicts in Johannesburg lacked the opportunity to access education opportunities in their formative years.

This is why I’ve pledged to work with the private sector to drive two new projects. Under the new DA administration, early learning day care centres will be established across Johannesburg’s townships.

Research in the US shows that a child’s learning begins before birth, and that the most critical period in a child’s development occurs within the first five years of life. The quality of learning experiences at home and school during this period often has a life-long impact on later learning success, behaviour, and health.

Yet in South Africa, many families in the townships simply cannot provide learning because life is so damn hard.

In our early learning day care centres, children will receive at least one nutritious meal, nurturing, lots of love, and a pre-school education. This also will allow moms and dads in places like Zandspruit and Alexandra to return to work. Not only is this the moral thing to do, research also shows that early learning day care centres help close inequality gaps, and have the potential to help solve other urban challenges. These education pathways will transform the life chances of children from poor families.

How will it work? As mayor, I will cultivate political will, and inculcate in business and civic society the understanding that this project is key to unlocking the city’s potential. It will be established in the mayor’s office. I want especially to empower women entrepreneurs in the townships to establish the early learning centres as private initiatives.

The city will support the aspirant entrepreneurs in applying for start-up finance, including accessing funding and, equally important, know-how expertise from organisations – like, for example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s pre-K programme. We will also provide discounted rents to entrepreneurs who lease city-owned properties for their early learning centres.

As I look back on my early life, I know that an early learning centre in the township where I grew up would’ve taken a huge weight off my mom’s and siblings’ shoulders. Truthfully, it would have made all the difference.

As a city, let’s help lift the burden off the shoulders of moms and dads in the townships. It will be the best investment that we can make. And because we can. DM

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