A call to clear the road ahead

Posted on August 9, 2020


As we in South Africa celebrate Women’s Day today, thousands of childcare centres around the country remain closed. Yet these, until the lockdown, provided sanctuary and food to perhaps 2.5 million pre-school children and some peace of mind for their working or work-seeking mothers.

Now hunger now stalks the land. And children, sometimes as young as seven or eight are often left to care for younger siblings.

This frightening reality brought to mind two comments I had recently read. The first was the remark: “Health, for the majority of the population is a story of suffering, illness and disease.” The second: “A more undignified scenario than starvation of a child is unimaginable; the morality of a society is gauged by how it treats its children.”

They were both penned by women about conditions in South Africa, but were made 36 years apart: the first in 1984 and the second last month. That they seem equally valid today is a shocking indictment.

In 1984, Dr Aziza Seedat, in exile in Germany, wrote the book, Crippling a Nation, about health care for the majority of the population under apartheid. Looking ahead, she was sure that that all would change “with the destruction of the apartheid system.”

Last month, Judge Sulet Potterill made her comment when she ordered the department of basic education (DBE) to fulfill its obligation under the National School Nutrition Programme to feed nine million children who qualify for a daily meal. The court heard that the DBE had “continuously failed” to meet this obligation.

But this ruling applied only to schools under the authority of the DBE. The perhaps 32 000 or more early childhood centres, many in the most deprived areas of the country, are the responsibility of the department of social development, whether registered or not.

These centres cannot now function unless they are “Covid-19 compliant” at a cost, on average, of R4 000, which few, if any, can afford. Fund raising is now underway by the Cape Town-based Centre for Early Childhood Development in a battle that echoes across more than a century.

There is a resonance here to 1955, and the launch in Cape Town of the Blouvlei Nursery School and health centre, a week before the Freedom Charter was adopted at Kliptown in Johannesburg. The driving force behind the establishment of that centre was Dora Tamana, Bulhoek massacre survivor, mother, early education advocate, trade unionist and communist.

She was supported by fellow early learning campaigners, Jean Bernadt and Margaret Molteno and mainly by mothers from the Barkly House Nursery School.

At the opening of the centre, the hope was expressed that “the Freedom Charter will provide that in the South Africa of the future creches, nursery schools and full education will be the right of all”. It was a fight that Dora Tamana was still waging 26 years later when she addressed the launch conference of the United Women’s Organisation in April 1981.

Speaking from a wheelchair, she noted: “Women must unite to fight for these rights. We have opened the road for you. You must go forward.”

She and many others, most of whose names will never be known, continued along that road, potholed by apartheid and barricaded by racism. They persisted, borne on by the conviction that justice and rights for all would eventually prevail.

That fight continues today. And on every August 9 all women and men dedicated to a democratic future, should remember the fortitude and sacrifices of those pioneers. We should honour them by ensuring that the road ahead is cleared of the clutter of corruption, bureaucracy and prejudice.