Opinionista Robyn Wolfson Vorster 10 February 2021

The State of the Nation for South Africa’s children

On the eve of the State of the Nation Address, South Africa’s child advocates are asking if this will be the year children’s rights are prioritised. But they fear children will be left out in the cold again.

Note: Names of children have been changed throughout to protect their identities.

The year 2020 was hard for Nosipho. A bright and sweet-natured 11-year-old at a quintile 1 school, she describes how she started the year excited for Grade 5. But then lockdown began. Her mother, a domestic worker, lost her piece job and the school stopped providing the regular meal Nosipho relied on to get through each day. Her mother used all of her savings to ensure they had bread, sacrificing her own meal so Nosipho could have enough. But by May they were both starving.

Their only source of food became a soup kitchen, run by residents determined to continue despite attempts by the Department of Social Development to shut it down. Every day Nosipho queued with her lunchbox, hoping for a hot meal. But although the children always ate first, the locals often ran out of food before they had fed all the hungry people, who sometimes waited for hours in the rain and cold for their only meal of the day.

Occasionally, Nosipho listened to a school lesson on her neighbour’s radio, trying her best to concentrate over the music, shouting and children playing in the street. It was late August before she finally went back to school. Emaciated and anxious about what she has missed, and without adequate sanitation and protective equipment, school was challenging, especially with platooning.

Her mom is worried: “Nosipho is such a clever girl. She loved school, but now she is confused about the work, and on days when she wasn’t in school last year, she was hungry and struggled to do her worksheets. Sometimes she doesn’t sleep at night or wakes up crying. She tells me many of her friends are no longer at the school. I am scared she will leave school too.”

The mother of five-year-old Aphiwe is also concerned. She is employed by a local supermarket four days a week. She worked through Level 5 lockdown but her mother was able to look after Aphiwe during the day. Then Aphiwe’s grandmother died from Covid-19 complications, leaving the family bereft. Unable to negotiate childcare with her employer, and following an order by social development that early childhood development centres remain closed, she was forced to leave him in the care of a neighbour’s 14-year-old while she worked.

She was relieved when her son’s principal told her about a July court ruling ordering the minister to reopen the centres. But it was too late for Aphiwe’s nursery school. Without help from social development to obtain protective equipment, without subsidies (which the provincial department did not pay), and following threats from department officials, Aphiwe’s principal was forced to close the school permanently.

Now, his mother leaves him in a makeshift crèche run out of a local shack. It isn’t registered and Aphiwe’s mom is anxious that it isn’t very clean. Sometimes he cries and says he doesn’t want to go to school, and has stopped telling her about the things he learnt and singing nursery school songs (which he loved to do). But she can’t risk losing her job by staying at home to care for him. She has no choice.

Sara doesn’t remember a time before the pandemic. Just four months old when the country went into lockdown, all she knows is that she is hungry all the time. Fearful of “the Covid”, her mother stopped breastfeeding her. She was too scared to take Sara to the clinic. It was only in November when the numbers had dropped that she finally took her for a check-up. She was already a year old and the nurse said she was stunted, meaning Sara was too short for her age, which could damage her brain. She told her mother she needed to feed Sara more fruit, vegetables and protein. Her mother laughed, saying she didn’t have money for that.

The nurse also asked about the obvious burn-related scarring covering Sara’s right hand and forearm. Her mother said the baby had pulled hot water onto herself. She didn’t say her boyfriend had poured it over Sara when she wouldn’t stop crying. Her mother said he was just angry because he didn’t have work and the government was slow in paying the social relief of distress grant.

Disturbingly, Nosipho, Aphiwe and Sara are but three among a large number of children for whom 2020 was dreadful. The newly formed South African National Child Rights Coalition (SANCRC) cites data compiled through the long-term NIDS-CRAM survey to show how poorly children fared in 2020.

The SANCRC was established to give an orchestrated voice to NGOs and civil society working in child protection, education, early childhood development, health, nutrition, poverty alleviation and family programmes to realise children’s rights, and has partnered with the Civil Society Coalition for Women’s, Adolescents’ and Children’s Health (SACSoWACH).

The survey revealed that with the repeated and prolonged school closures, children lost 40% of the teaching year, with poor children in no-fee schools, such as Nosipho, most deeply affected. Younger children, including Aphiwe, lost crucial early childhood education. In 2018, almost 50% of children under five attended an early childhood development programme. In 2020, only 13% attended – the lowest in 18 years.

Hunger and food insecurity increased to exacerbate already alarming malnutrition statistics. Before Covid-19, 27% of children under five were stunted. In 2020, 32% of households reported running out of money for food. Access to food through schools dropped from 80% to 25% of children.

Covid-19 negatively affected access for children like Sara to essential preventative and health-promoting services, including immunisations, well-baby visits and developmental screening and support. In addition, children in lockdown were at a high risk of violence, abuse and poor care in homes where adult caregivers were under stress. The government failed to adequately plan for children with disabilities who were further disadvantaged.

The pandemic has undoubtedly had a devastating effect, but the coalitions are concerned that South African children were already in crisis before 2020. Research shows that difficult social and economic circumstances and weak supportive systems are long-term problems. The studies they cite are revealing.

The global WHO–UNICEF–Lancet Commission study on the future of the world’s children, released in February 2020, ranked South Africa “127th on the flourishing index, lower than countries with much fewer resources. This means that children face many more health, development and sustainability challenges.” And South Africa’s 2019 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) report released by Statistics SA confirms that poverty levels have increased, while inequality levels remain the highest in the world.

Quoting a UNICEF report on child poverty, the coalitions argue that South Africa’s inability to escape the poverty and inequality trap is fundamentally linked to its inability to address intergenerational child poverty. Despite 30 years of pro-poor policies, six out of 10 children are still multidimensionally poor. They are income poor and deprived of health, nutrition, quality education and basic services, which are essential to their development and movement out of poverty. As a result, it’s estimated that 38% of children under five are at risk of poor development. Concerningly, the worst-affected children are previously disadvantaged, specifically black children, those in underserviced rural areas and informal settlements, and those with disabilities.

While Covid-19 has brought global hardships, in South Africa it has also exposed structural flaws in the government’s approach to strategic planning and providing services to children. Despite the country’s ratification of numerous treaties and development instruments, and a strong legislative and regulatory framework including the Constitution, the Children’s Act (2008), the National Child Care and Protection Policy (2019) and the National Plan of Action for Children (2020), children don’t appear to be a national developmental priority.

With the pandemic still a global crisis, and South African children (who make up more than a third of the population) at the back of the queue for vaccinations, it’s imperative that the government avoid another year of reactive and siloed responses to child health, poverty, education, family care, early childhood development and protection.

Moreover, the pandemic has highlighted the government’s reactive and fragmented response to challenges children face. According to the coalitions, the government only began developing a disaster management plan for children in June 2020. Eight months later and this plan has yet to be actioned.

This lack of planning and responsiveness to children’s needs was visible during lockdown when civil society had to resort to several high-profile court proceedings to compel the government to act in children’s best interests.

Following shocking stories of child hunger, activists took legal action to force the Department of Basic Education (DBE) to reopen the National School Nutrition Programme which it had summarily suspended at the beginning of lockdown. Despite reports, just days before the judgment, of children resorting to eating wild plants to survive, it took a high court declaratory order reiterating the constitutional and statutory duty of the DBE and provincial education departments to fulfil children’s rights to basic education and basic nutrition, before the feeding scheme was reinstituted.

The Department of Social Development was even more beleaguered, losing several court challenges, including opposition to its attempts to centralise and control NGO-run feeding schemes and soup kitchens, a July high ruling forcing it to reopen early childhood development centres (which it was keeping forcibly closed despite the risk of hundreds of thousands of children being left home alone when parents returned to work), an October high court ruling forcing it to pay subsidies it was withholding from centres, and an appeal against this judgment.

It is testament to how badly the government handled these critical issues of child hunger and early childhood development that the judge in the school nutrition case found it necessary to issue a supervisory order to the Department of Basic Education to ensure compliance, and the Department of Social Development was ordered to pay costs in all three of the early childhood development centre cases.

The government’s failure to fulfil its mandate to ensure the nation’s children receive the care they need not only to survive, but to thrive, has been exacerbated by its siloed approach. Every child has the right to healthcare, nutrition, protection, education and responsive parenting, as well as basic services such as identity documents, water and sanitation. Realising these rights requires the participation of numerous government departments including health, education, social development, justice, home affairs and the police.

And while the government has pursued a multisectoral approach to confronting the coronavirus, and has consolidated a strategic approach in the Office of the Presidency to tackling problems facing women, young people and people with disabilities, child-focused initiatives in nutrition, health, addressing poverty, early childhood development, education, family care and preventing and addressing violence continue to straddle several departments. Unsurprisingly, they fall between the cracks.

According to the SANCRC and SACSoWACH, this siloed approach has also been evident in the past three Sonas in which there was “recognition of isolated rights such as education as key to development”. The organisations believe this is inadequate because “the Sonas do not recognise and make children’s comprehensive and interrelated rights an explicit national priority”.

As we approach Sona 2021, the coalitions are asking if this will be the year when children’s issues are finally prioritised in the government’s strategic planning. But it’s doubtful. Although the Medium-Term Strategic Framework 2019–2024 makes women, young people and people with disabilities an explicit national development emphasis, with an accompanying set of government-wide mainstreaming duties, overseen by a dedicated department in the Presidency, children have been conspicuously excluded. And without a similar prioritisation of children or a similar structure in the Presidency to oversee the required process of child-centred governance, fundamental change is unlikely.

The SANCRC and SACSoWACH say there is “overwhelming, compelling evidence that children’s development requires the realisation of their collective rights. Malnourished children, children living in poverty, children who battle disease, children who experience unresponsive caregiving, children who experience violence and children who receive little or poor-quality education may survive, but they are at a very high risk of failing to develop. As such, rather than becoming the next generation of economically active citizens, parents and leaders, they are at risk of being trapped in an intergenerational cycle of poverty. They are at risk of becoming the heads of the next generation of poor households that will face the same battles that their parents face now.”

The coalitions see the 2021 Sona and State of the Province addresses (Sopas) as an opportunity for the president and premiers to change this pattern and commit to making children’s rights a national priority.

They are therefore calling on the government to use its Sona and Sopas and follow-up planning processes to:

  1. Provide political leadership to advance children’s rights as an explicit nationwide development policy, with coordinated planning and accountability;
  2. Develop a consolidated and coordinated approach to all children’s issues by providing a dedicated institution located at the centre of the country’s national planning machinery in the Office of the Presidency with an appropriate mandate, authority, capacity and resources to oversee a unified response, and hold role players accountable for their roles and responsibilities;
  3. Revise the Medium-Term Strategic Framework to make children’s rights an actionable national priority, and amend ministerial service delivery agreements accordingly;
  4. Use Parliament to provide oversight and for accountability; and
  5. Harness the skills and knowledge of civil society for the development and implementation of this strategy (rather than simply reporting to them on actions taken).

With the pandemic still a global crisis, and South African children (who make up more than a third of the population) at the back of the queue for vaccinations, it’s imperative that the government avoid another year of reactive and siloed responses to child health, poverty, education, family care, early childhood development and protection.

But more than that, the crisis also allows the country to finally redress historical challenges which continue to pull generations into poverty. It is the least that Nosipho, Aphiwe, Sara and the more than 19.6 million other South African children deserve. DM

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