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Early childhood development starts at birth – the first 1,000 days are critical


Monja Boonzaier is Founder and Director of non-profit organisation Hamba Bamba Funda which deals with early childhood education, focusing on ECD from birth, in areas such as Kliptown, Soweto.

Early childhood development under the proposed Bela Bill will only start from about the age of four. From personal experience doing the groundwork in Kliptown, Soweto, with mothers and babies, starting at four and even three is too late.

In his letter from the President of 10 October 2022, President Cyril Ramaphosa stressed the government’s intentions to commit to and support early childhood development (ECD) in South Africa. The following important points were highlighted:

  • Foundational learning is key to a child’s success in later years;
  • ECD centres are an important source of entrepreneurship and job creation, especially for women in underresourced communities;
  • Many of these centres have incorporated a basic learning curriculum; and
  • There is now before Parliament a proposal that it should be compulsory for all children to receive two years of ECD before they enter Grade 1 as six-year-olds.

I applaud the fact that these key points are being addressed in the Basic Education Laws Amendment (Bela) Bill that is before Parliament, but I have serious reservations about its effectiveness.

On the basis that Grade 1 is for children from age six upwards, this means that ECD under the proposed bill will only start from age four. From personal experience doing the groundwork in Kliptown, Soweto, with mothers and babies, starting at four and even three is too late.

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According to Ramaphosa, emphasis is being placed on the fact that foundational learning is key to a child’s success in later years. As founding director of Hamba Bamba Funda (a non-profit organisation dealing with ECD from birth) I would like to share that we too believe in ECD. In fact, our focus is on the foundational years of birth to age two. I would therefore like to question why the starting age is not from birth. 

As the US NGO 1,000 Days says, “the first 1,000 days from pregnancy to age two offer a crucial window of opportunity to create brighter, healthier futures”. This is the period where the brain develops the most in young children and where foundations for life are being built. The government should consider implementing the provisions of the Bela Bill from the age of nought.

Read in Daily Maverick: “The everyday superwomen of early childhood development and their pivotal role in communities

A strong, long-lasting foundation is more than just building a house above the ground with bricks, which would be a good way of looking at childhood development. It requires taking into account the environment (living conditions), preparing the area (skills development of qualified caregivers), and building a framework (stimulating and giving meaningful attention to the children).

With this in place, the key ingredients must be mixed together to form the concrete for the foundation. Only then can the building start. If one of these ingredients is not sufficient or is missing, then the foundation becomes weak, causing the building to become unstable and eventually it will collapse.

Hamba Bamba Funda believes the key ingredient that is missing is the fact that ECD should start from birth, only then can the bricks be laid.

So, let’s build a strong foundation, and a strong nation. DM


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