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Early childhood development policies can strike at the heart of our culture of violence


Jesse Copelyn has an MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

The biggest issue to confront in dealing with violent crime is not organised groups of criminals or insurgents, but a normalisation of violence that infects interpersonal relationships in South Africa. Increasing police resources or deploying the military does not resolve this issue. We need policy measures that address this distortion of our culture, and early childhood development is key to success.

South Africa is facing a widely acknowledged violence epidemic. Events like the July riots which killed more than 300 people and the taxi violence which flared up soon after, all make it feel as if South Africa’s violence problem is getting worse.

Unfortunately, the data supports this narrative as the national murder rate (which is the most reliable indicator of violent crime) has steadily increased over the last 10 years. This is despite the good progress which was made after apartheid’s end when the homicide rate fell by more than half between 1994 and 2011.

The murder problem is acutely felt in urban slums and townships of large metros. Cape Town for instance was listed as the most murderous city in the country in 2020, and the 8th most murderous city in the world. The bulk of these murders occurred in the city’s townships.

To put this in perspective, consider that the rate at which people were killed by the brutal civil war in Syria in 2020 stood at roughly 39.5 people per 100,000. By contrast, the murder rate in Cape Town for the same year was 68.28 for every 100,000 people.

In other words, in 2020, the average Capetonian had a higher chance of being murdered than the average Syrian had of being killed by the civil war.

The state’s strategy

So what is the government’s strategy to deal with this onslaught? Since the transition from apartheid, several progressive policies were adopted to promote a multipronged effort to tackle violence and crime. The 1996 National Crime Prevention Strategy (NCPS) advocated a holistic approach to crime prevention which not only engaged the criminal justice system but also encouraged a multidepartmental effort to identify and target the root causes of crime.

By the early 2000s, however, the NCPS lost traction, and the criminal justice system (the police, courts and prisons) became the primary tool by which the government sought to control violence and crime, occasionally supplemented by the military. 

The current national budget allocates a sizeable R104.6-billion to the police services while another R46.7-billion goes to courts and prisons. There is little else in the budget which is explicitly designed to target crime and violence. Rising murder rates typically elicit commitments by the police to engage in new strategies to combat criminality while extreme spikes in violence provoke the deployment of the military.

Improving police capacity is certainly important in order to reduce violence and there are several evidence-based policies that could be adopted to improve police effectiveness.

Yet, the general sentiment behind the NCPS was correct: even if the criminal justice system improves, this by itself is insufficient to significantly reduce violence and lawlessness.

This becomes apparent when we consider the nature of violence in South Africa. In the case of murders for which police can establish a motive, the most prevalent cause is not gangsterism or organised crime, but overly heated arguments/misunderstandings. These arguments frequently involve young drunk men who know each other (often family and friends) and the murders typically occur at night over weekends.

The second most prevalent cause is domestic violence.

The necessity of social prevention

The picture is therefore clear. The biggest issue to confront is not a discrete organised group of criminals or insurgents that must be defeated, but a normalisation of violence that appears to infect interpersonal relationships in this country. Increasing police resources or deploying the military does not resolve this issue. We cannot station a police officer or soldier at every tavern and family get-together in the country. We need policy measures that address this distortion of our culture.

There are a handful of programmes that attempt to target the social and environmental causes of violence. For instance, police stations are supposed to have a Youth Crime Prevention Desk which works with young volunteers to identify the social causes of violence. In Gauteng, interventions by these desks have included motivational talks and sports activities.

Other more empirically grounded examples include the Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU) programme. The organisation partners with the Western Cape government and municipalities to develop safer neighbourhoods by upgrading physical and social infrastructure. The programme has had some empirical success, as one 2020 study found that a VPUU intervention in Khayelitsha reduced reports of interpersonal violence in targeted areas.

Overall, however, social prevention policies are scarce and are implemented in small pockets of the country. These are often driven by NGOs and foreign donors. Twenty-five years after the NCPS was passed, the government appears to lack any extensive, empirically grounded social crime prevention policy.

What can be done?

One of the most effective ways that the government could target the culture of violence that youth experience in South Africa is through early child development (ECD). ECD includes programmes that target young children (aged 0 to 7) as well as their parents to ensure that kids grow up in environments where they can develop cognitively and emotionally. Examples include good-quality nursery schooling, educational programmes for parents and home interventions by nurses and social workers to assist parents with healthy childcare practices.

A great deal of empirical research has been done on the effects of these kinds of interventions although admittedly most have been carried out in the United States. One seminal study examined the effects of a programme in which nurses made routine visits to households in New York to assist mothers with prenatal health, childcare skills and child nutrition. Fifteen years later the researchers found that relative to a control group, children from nurse-visited mothers had significantly fewer behavioural problems and fewer arrests.

Several other studies have obtained similar results. For instance, one found that a combination of quality nursery schooling and nurse home interventions in troubled US neighbourhoods reduced arrests later in life. Even more dramatically, new evidence has revealed intergenerational reductions in crime emanating from ECD programmes in the US, i.e. children of people who grew up with ECD services were less likely to behave violently.

How does ECD reduce violence?

The actual mechanisms by which ECD reduces violence are more contentious, though there are several hypothesised channels.

One is psychosocial. Parents in low-income neighbourhoods face severe stressors that can result in maternal depression and violent parenting, both of which may contribute to more aggressive behaviour in children later in life.

By teaching parents appropriate childcare strategies, ECD services may thus establish more healthy family environments and permit children to grow up in stable and loving conditions.

A second potential channel is economic. Research has found that certain ECD services can lead to substantially improved incomes later in life. Thus, ECD may reduce violent crime by allowing young people to attain non-criminal opportunities for income generation.

By addressing the psychosocial needs of marginalised youth growing up in highly stressful environments and improving their long-run economic prospects, ECD strikes at the heart of some potential causes of criminal violence.

The status of ECD in South Africa

While the South African government has carved out a policy on ECD which acknowledges the sector’s potential to reduce crime, little has been done to test which ECD services could best target violence in the South African context. A further concern is the fact that the ECD sector is in deep crisis and thus any potential that it may have for violence prevention is being lost.

The Covid-19 pandemic, which forced ECD providers to close for several months, has been severely detrimental in this regard. The incompetence of the Department of Social Development which is responsible for ECD has certainly not helped matters. They communicated poorly with ECD providers during the pandemic and halted the sector’s small operational grant during the first lockdown. The department also failed to prioritise ECD workers for vaccination.

Consequently, many ECD providers have not been able to afford to reopen. By July 2020, which was a month after the mandated reopening of ECD services, only 12% of children who had attended ECD services prior to lockdown had returned.

However, the government has proven that it is capable of supporting increased ECD access. Government initiatives like the Community Work Programme, which employs people to do socially useful work in their own communities, is extensively involved in providing ECD services. And at the national level, Nids-Cram data has revealed that the proportion of South African children who accessed ECD services roughly quadrupled between 2002 and 2018.

While much of this progress has been wiped out by the pandemic, the state should be able to revive the sector if it provides urgent relief, and avoids needless delays in its current support to the sector.

Beyond this, researchers need to analyse which specific ECD services can be deployed for violence prevention in South Africa and the state needs to guide policy in accordance with this evidence.

The criminal justice system and the military cannot be our only port of call to dealing with the violence epidemic. DM


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