The most vulnerable members of our society, young children, have had their already limited opportunities further eroded by the Covid-19 pandemic and the negligent and short-sighted approach of government.
It is extremely concerning that Early Childhood Development (ECD) is not getting the support and implementation it deserves in South Africa, which is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. Our Bill of Rights reflects child rights in the Constitution and South Africa also has the goal of universal access to a full range of ECD services by 2030.
Yet, in practice, ECD is in a precarious situation.
“No child must be left behind,” wrote former Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini in the introduction to the National Integrated Early Childhood Development Policy document in 2015. “Our goal is that by 2030, a full comprehensive age and developmental stage appropriate package of quality early childhood development services is available and accessible to all infants and young children and their caregivers.”
The South African Early Childhood Review 2019, which examined data for children aged under six years old, showed some progress in that maternal and child mortality rates were on a downward trend. But South Africa was still struggling with nutrition (an alarming 27% of children under five suffer from stunting) as well as support for primary caregivers, and early learning.
At the 2020 Trialogue Business in Society Virtual Conference in October last year, education experts pointed out that, to meet the 2015 ECD target, South Africa would need more than 100,000 additional early learning teachers and 40,000 new venues for three- to five-year-olds alone.
While the education system in our country has always been fragile for the majority of South Africans, the Covid-19 pandemic has fragmented the system even more. Covid-19 has increased the barriers to education and decreased the quality of its programmes.
Last year, during the first phase of the pandemic, ECD centres were closed temporarily for the safety of children. The centres were deprived of government operational subsidies. Many ECD workers lost their jobs, with those who returned earning less than half their previous salaries. The children’s subsidy was halted.
In a paper entitled A Sector Hanging in the Balance, the global programme Research on Improving Systems of Education (Rise) has estimated that just 13% of South African children aged 0-6 years were attending ECD programmes by mid-July to mid-August 2020 compared to 47% in 2018. The last time that ECD attendance rates were as low as this was in the early 2000s.
Considering that ECD is a Constitutional right, the Centre for Early Childhood Development (CECD), led by Professor Eric Atmore, has been prominent and vocal in the sector since 1994. It has contributed to government ECD policy initiatives and has a history of advocacy and lobbying.
The CECD has played a critical role in litigation with the Department of Social Development (DSD) to ensure that the full ECD subsidy was paid to ECD centres during Covid, ensuring that the sector did not collapse completely. The actions of Professor Atmore and activists in the sector have alerted us to the fact that building a social justice movement is an important next step to ensure that the rights of young children are protected. This is necessary because it is clear from the events of 2020, that government has dropped the ball and years of work invested in building the sector are in danger of being lost.
The CECD has now formally structured its lobbying and advocacy initiatives in the form of an Advocacy and Social Justice Unit. It has appointed skilled staff, led by attorney-at-law Yusrah Ehrenreich. Inyathelo, the South African Institute for Advancement, hosted the virtual launch of this unit on 23 June, at which sector stakeholders discussed ECD advocacy work to date, and the way forward.
Professor Atmore has emphasised that the unit is not a fledgling ECD organisation, nor is it a single-issue ECD campaign.
“It is a social movement that aims to radically transform ECD in South Africa.”
We need to rethink our approach to ECD activism and it is everyone’s responsibility to do this, he said. “If we are going to improve the situation for young children, we have no choice but to speak out comprehensively and powerfully, and speak truth to power. At this time, we certainly need a shift in how we tackle early childhood development. We must ask ourselves: if not us, then who? If not now, then when?”
The Unit will prioritise education on rights, communication, direct action, policy work, legal advocacy and litigation, lobbying, consultation, and working with and strengthening existing coalitions.
One such topic is the R1.3-billion that government allocated to the ECD sector in October 2020. Over half of this allocation has reverted to the Treasury as there was no coherent and comprehensive implementation plan. It remains to be seen how much funding the Treasury will agree to roll over, but this lack of decisive action has had a devastating impact on children and those who have lost salaries and livelihoods.
Another decision causing concern is that of vaccination. While school teachers may be vaccinated, those working in ECD, which falls under the Department of Social Development, currently do not qualify.
Given the immense challenges facing the ECD sector, Inyathelo wholeheartedly supports the establishment of the new Advocacy and Social Justice Unit. We call on civil society, the ECD sector, parents and others to back this initiative. Our future depends on it. DM/MC