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It’s election time and politicians will be kissing babies – yet their silence on early childhood development is deafening

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Professor Eric Atmore is Director of the Centre for Early Childhood Development and Extraordinary Associate Professor, Department of Education Policy Studies, University of Stellenbosch.

Conspicuous by its absence, but not unexpected, is that not one party or candidate in the upcoming election has yet spoken about their policy on meeting the needs of South Africa’s youngest children and what they would do for young children. This is not surprising, and mirrors provincial and national precedent.

Local government elections take place on 1 November this year: posters are displayed, visits to local communities are taking place often accompanied by marching bands, in some municipalities streets are being cleaned, grass verges cut, traffic poles painted – you get the picture. Promises are made, there is back-slapping and hand-shaking and politicians of all parties are kissing babies again. We last saw this five years ago. In summary, politicians have begun wooing the electorate.

Conspicuous by its absence, but not unexpected, is that not one party or candidate has yet spoken to the electorate about their policy on meeting the needs of South Africa’s youngest children and what they would do for young children were they to be elected and govern. This is not surprising and mirrors provincial and national precedent. However, as 1 November approaches, these very same politicians will kiss more and more babies.

A glance at the election manifestos of the four bigger parties reveals much. The DA in their 37-page manifesto and the EFF in their 81-page manifesto say nothing about early childhood development (ECD) and nothing about children. Not one word.

The Good party in their eight-page manifesto write about “… safe spaces for children and safe parks”, and the ANC in its 28-page manifesto writes about “… safe communities for children” and “… ensuring infrastructure to meet specific needs of children”. The ANC also writes about providing the Child Support Grant (CSG) for children. Why this is a local government issue is unclear as the CSG is a national responsibility.  

This being the case, what could these parties and candidates be saying about young children across our country? The Centre for Early Childhood Development offers some guidance to politicians who have forgotten that young children make up a large portion of the communities they want to represent.

There are great numbers of young children within our country – some seven million are under the age of six years. The 2.3 million children attending an ECD centre are hugely impacted by municipal laws, regulations and complex and unnecessary bureaucracy. As a start, mayoral and ward candidates can pledge to simplify health and safety standards to ease the setting-up process for ECD centres, and they can integrate ECD into Integrated Development Plans.

There are several strong arguments as to why municipalities must support ECD programmes for young children. Before a child enters primary school, a learning foundation must be laid. Embedded within their family, their community and their cultural values, young children need to be supported to enable them to thrive in later years, and as the National Integrated ECD Policy indicates, municipalities have an important role to play in this.

Scientific findings from a variety of fields have demonstrated that support of programmes for children will yield significant benefits, not only in immediate ways for the child and parents, but also over time in terms of the child’s ability to contribute to the community. Investing in ECD programmes will be one of the most significant interventions local government can make towards the future prosperity of South Africans. Interventions in the early years of childhood offer an extraordinary opportunity to avoid or mitigate social problems, and to bring lasting benefits to families, individuals and society.

The benefit of investing in young children’s early learning programmes can be extraordinarily high. Because of the overwhelming evidence that the early years are so key to future successes, the Declaration and Framework for Action at the World Conference on Education for All in 1990 challenged countries to include in their plans: “Expansion of early childhood care and development activities, including family and community interventions, especially for poor, disadvantaged and disabled children.”

Local government has a legal mandate in our Constitution (Schedule 4B) around its duty to provide facilities for ECD, but other imperatives can be gleaned from its responsibility towards promoting social and economic development.

Through local government, municipalities can provide services for its youngest and most vulnerable citizens. Specifically, municipalities should have the following as their ECD goals:

  • To protect and promote the rights of children in the municipality in line with the South African Constitution and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child;
  • To contribute towards social development by funding ECD facilities, services and programmes;
  • To assist communities, non-profit organisations, churches, employers etc, who are prepared to initiate and establish ECD programmes;
  • To ensure that ECD facilities, services and programmes are well managed, equipped, staffed and maintained;
  • To monitor the quality of ECD facilities, services and programmes;
  • To remove the costly and unnecessary regulations that impede early learning opportunities for young children; and
  • To allocate land and sites to organisations wanting to provide services for children.

In addition, municipalities must not make policy decisions that negatively impact on young children. All municipal policies, regulations and guidelines must be consistent with Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration in all actions concerning children.

The overriding vision of each municipality must be that our cities, towns and villages will be places where all children have the right to develop and thrive to their full potential in a secure, safe family environment, free from poverty and exploitation and in which every child can achieve her or his optimal development.

Political parties wishing to govern in municipalities must undertake to ensure that all children, particularly those that are most marginalised and vulnerable, are supported to realise their rights through municipal policies and programmes. This means:

  • Strengthening the capacity of communities and families to take control of their future;
  • Addressing structural inequalities and barriers that prevent children from enjoying their rights; and
  • Holding municipalities responsible for their obligations towards children.

Municipalities must accept that each child has the right to be protected from maltreatment or abuse that may be physical, sexual, emotional or the result of neglect. To do this, municipalities must develop effective, open and active partnerships with communities. This includes partnerships with the non-profit, faith-based and business sectors.

Child-friendly municipalities must invest in building the skills and capacity of its staff so that municipalities can achieve these goals. Municipalities must ensure that the most vulnerable and marginalised children and communities are targeted through the integration of a rights-based approach in all its work with children.

Municipalities need to address the balance between the quality (depth) and quantity (spread) of ECD programmes to ensure maximum impact.  Furthermore, municipalities need to invest in partnerships and deliver a clear and transparent resource allocation system.

Municipalities need to provide funding and expertise to enhance, impact on and support ECD programme implementation.

To become a child-friendly municipality, whichever party triumphs in each municipality on 1 November needs to establish an ECD unit that:

  • Promotes and defends the rights of children;
  • Coordinates local authority activities that address the situation of children;
  • Makes use of substantial experience and knowledge of non-profit ECD organisations and experts; and  
  • Promotes participation of other municipal departments in support of young children.

Meeting the social and education needs of South Africa’s youngest and most vulnerable children is fundamental to economic prosperity, political stability, the advancement of democracy and nation building.  Our municipalities must commit to the survival, protection and development of our youngest citizens.

It remains to be seen whether politicians will choose to prioritise young children or whether they will again only kiss babies at election time rather than putting young children first in the years ahead. DM

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  • Thanks Eric for pointing out this terrible omission in the current political debate.
    It bodes ill for everyone desperate for ECD funding.