South Africa’s child care catastrophe

Posted on April 3, 2022


(First published in City Press, South Africa, 22.04,03)

Working families are always the prime sufferers when catastrophe strikes, be it war, famine, flood or often, callous disregard by powers that be. And it is children who carry the long-term consequences of trauma, dislocation and deprivation with many growing in to adulthood with their potential, physically, intellectually and emotionally stunted.

In any region where this happens the human cost is only one horrendous outcome. Copious research has shown that the effects of damaging what is the potential future labour force in this way is seriously harmful to the society at large in social, economic and, often, political terms.

This was realised by Nelson Mandela when he launched his Children’s Fund in 1995 and gave considerable impetus to the ECD movement. He stated: “As we set about building a new South Africa, one of our highest priorities must therefore be our children.”

Yet on our doorstep in South Africa right now there is an ongoing and little reported humanitarian catastrophe: it directly affects thousands of Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres, more than 100,000 teachers and other ECD workers, along with some 2 million children in their care. Many ECD workers lost their jobs with the Covid-19 lockdown and children often lost their only source of daily care and sustenance.

However, popular and media attention is now largely focussed on the death and destruction in Ukraine, with the horrors in Yemen or Somalia providing an occasional media sideshow. This is understandable because rockets, artillery and bombs provide dramatic images of mayhem on an often industrial scale. And real-time social media and television convey these constantly to the world at large.

“There are no bombs involved to make an impact, but the damage here is also horrific,” says leading Cape Town ECD activist Theodora Lutuli. “And this has been going on for a lot longer than Ukraine.”

In the past two years, following the apparently ill-planned lockdown, the situation also became much worse. As Gift of the Givers founder, Imtiaz Suleiman, reported after a visit to the Eastern Cape, he had seen desperate children eating grass in an effort to stave off hunger.

Today, as I write this, I am aware, from responsible sources, that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children are dying lingering deaths from starvation while others are perishing from the preventable diseases resulting from malnutrition. Most survivors will have whatever potential they possessed, stunted.

In October 2020, after protests by ECD activists, government did react. President Cyril Ramaphosa pledged R1.3 billion in Employment Stimulus Relief Funds to all ECD workers. But the department of social development (DSD), responsible for ECD centres, apparently had little idea how many ECD centres there were or where they were sited.

However, the department then issued what activists describe as a “very complex and convoluted online application process”. It seemed a case, as Professor Eric Atmore of the Centre for Early Childhood Development, noted at the time, of “officialdom gone crazy.”

Cape Town ECD campaigner Theodora Lutuli sums up the problem: “How does a woman in charge of an ECD centre, especially in a rural area, with no electricity, let alone a computer, manage this?”

As a result, many applications were never made and many that were received, were ruled inadequate, with a number of applicants disqualified because they did not have bank accounts. In the past, only the minority of formally registered centres qualified for the meagre state aid available. Most appear to have received some emergency payments.

But working people around the country, along with most children, live in rural areas, informal settlements and townships. Parents rely on conveniently sited, relatively inexpensive, and unregistered, care and education for their children. Such centres, that are still technically illegal, usually find it impossible to comply with the stringent — “Constantia and Houghton level” — registration standards demanded by the DSD.

However, in an apparent concession to reality, workers in the majority, unregistered, centres also qualified for the emergency payments. Yet most of these workers never received anything, with the result that, five months after the R1.3 billion pledge, R712 million was reportedly paid back to the Treasury as “unused”.

Despite these hurdles, at least 108,833 principals, teachers and other ECD staff managed to qualify for payments from the relief fund. But, another ten months on, with some of the fund again made available, more than 58,000 ECD workers were still waiting to be paid — and confusion continued.

This week it seemed possible that several hundred million rand would be handed back, again unspent, to Treasury. This was confirmed last week by DSD spokesperson Lumka Oliphant when she noted: “There is a likelihood that not all qualified ECD programmes will be paid during this financial year.”

Oliphant added that there was the possibility of “rollovers” of the money to enable later payments. But this is little consolation to workers who have not been paid for for more than a year. As a result, numerous ECD centres have shut their doors and are unlikely to reopen.

“It’s both shocking and disgraceful,” says Atmore who was one of the signatories to a memorandum handed to the DSD last week. It demanded that the department “must pay ALL outstanding ECD Employment Stimulus Relief Funds” by Thursday of this week and gave the department until Monday to respond.

Monday is also the day when responsibility for overseeing the ECD environment should be transferred to the basic education department. However, this is unlikely to result in any material change, at least in the short term.

“But we have found our voice,” says Lutuli. “If they do not listen, we shall take action. It is the lives of our children we are talking about.”

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