Betrayal — amid continuing hope

Posted on May 25, 2021


The children of the working poor have been betrayed again. Last week it became clear that almost all the promised Covid-19 emergency payments to tens of thousands of workers who care for an estimated 2.5 million children under the age of six had not been paid,

In October last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa pledged R1.3 billion in such payments following the chaos after the lockdown closure of early childhood development (ECD) centres. In a series of apparent blunders and considerable misinformation from the Department of Social Development (DSD) it now appears that R712 million of this money was paid back to the treasury.

By this week, only some of the remaining R497 million had been paid out — in smaller amounts than promised.

This triggered roadside protests by Early Childhood Development (ECD) workers and campaigners. But although these were workers protesting about future generations of the working class being sabotaged, unions were nowhere to be seen.

It does seem probable that most ECD workers are not union members. But then a simple question arises: why not? Why have unions — especially those in the education sector — not recruited and organised among the thousands of ECD centres around the country?

It appears that the labour movement, together with the government, has turned a blind eye not only to the needs and promises to children, but to the obligations both are bound by. Given the provisions in the Bill of Rights and the international agreements on human rights ratified by the government, the unions should have been to the forefront of this protest.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the organisational experience of trade unions helped communities to establish solid centres of resistance to apartheid. But that was based on the democratic, shopfloor structures that seem largely to have withered away.

The DSD has now blamed principals, teachers and other ECD workers for not having timeously completed applications. But these applications, in the words of several workers, were “deliberately complex and provided only days before submission was due”.

However, other workers reject a conspiracy theory, seeing what has happened as a combination of incompetence and a callous disregard for young children. According to Professor Eric Atmore of the Centre for Early Childhood Development, it is a case of “officialdom gone crazy”.

He also asks, how it can be expected of an ECD teacher in a rural area without electricity or access to a computer to complete a convoluted and complex online application form?

What has happened has once again set back early childhood care and education (ECCE) to a position worse than what existed more than 70 years ago. Then, the early pioneers of ECCE were living with a history of official neglect that was also saturated in more than 300 years of racism, but had made progress.

Steered by liberal patronage and a few radicals, the Nursery School Association had adopted a non-racial constitution in 1939, and felt, by 1947, that “the time is not very far distant when every child will pass through a nursery school (catering for three to five year olds)”.

Although schools and training were segregated, registered establishments were staffed by teachers with equal qualifications and were subsidised by various levels of government. The first teachers to graduate with professional three-year qualifications were black women from the Ekutuleni college, founded in 1936 and attached to the Thabong nursery school in Sophiatown.

Thabong and the clubs set up by the Anglican Ekutuleni mission also attracted support from student volunteers from the exclusive Roedean School and from individual communists and Christians from the “white” suburbs. For all its problems and poverty, the ethnic mix that was Sophiatown seemed to many to contain the seeds of a future, new South Africa.

But all those hopes were shattered with the arrival in 1948 of the National Party government and formal apartheid. The Sophiatown college and nursery school disappeared ten years later with the ethnic cleansing and bulldozing of the racially integrated suburb known by its residents as Kofifi.

More than 40 years of struggle followed before hopes were again rekindled, especially after 1995 when President Nelson Mandela launched his Children’s Fund. It was then that he noted:

“We come from a past in which the lives of our children were assaulted and devastated in countless ways. It would be no exaggeration to speak of a national abuse of a generation by a society which it should have been able to trust. As we set about building a new South Africa, one of our highest priorities must therefore be our children.”

Once again, promises have been ignored. However, this goes against every legal and moral principle subscribed to by the government — and supported across the board by the labour movement. So, unlike 1947, hope continues to thrive, but it does so in the light of a warning by Mandela before he became president: . “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

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