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Elections 2024: A party for the children is a party for the future

Ashraf Hendricks / archive photo


On Saturday 20 April, early childhood development (ECD) practitioners, parents, caregivers, activists and members of civil society members will march with the Real Reform for ECD Movement in Johannesburg in pursuit of a common purpose: ensuring that whoever leads South Africa after the general election makes the futures of our youngest generation a top priority.

Early childhood is a critically important phase of a child’s life. To unlock their potential, young children need nurturing care across five key areas: nutrition; early learning; health; caregiving; and safety and protection.

Yet most young children do not receive this critical support, and they carry the consequences of this lack of attention throughout their lives. Only a third of children aged three to five attend a crèche, nursery school, playgroup or other programme, and one in four children under five experience stunting.

Even where children do access early learning programmes, ECD practitioners struggle to provide nutritious food, adequate infrastructure, and age-appropriate stimulation for learning, with the subsidy from the government frozen at just R17 per eligible child per day since 2019.

Indeed, a large part of the problem is that funding for ECD is entirely inadequate. Children aged zero to five make up 10% of the population but, in 2021/22, less than 2% of total government spending went to interventions for young children - despite the fact that ECD has been shown to be one of the most powerful investments a government can make.

The consequences of failing to support young children are profound. Less than half of children aged four and five are on track for early learning. As is well known by now, 80% of Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning. This cannot go on.

While there have been positive developments for young children, the pace of improvement has been slow and inconsistent. Though the Department of Basic Education’s new ECD strategy is promising, we still do not see consistent prioritisation of the needs of young children across different spheres of government.

The Equal Education Law Centre has received reports from playgroups, toy libraries and mobile programmes whose funding has been cut in the last two years and on whom new, inappropriate and onerous registration requirements have been imposed.

The Gauteng Department of Health is suddenly withdrawing nutrition support to any ECD programme that is not registered with the Department of Basic Education - despite the formidable and well-documented obstacles to registration, especially for ECD programmes serving disadvantaged communities.

Taking into account inflation, the freezing of the ECD subsidy for the sixth year in a row amounts to a cut of about one quarter, leaving ECD practitioners less able to buy food, toys, cleaning products and other essential supplies.

Against this backdrop, the lack of attention paid to our youngest generation by those standing for election is striking. Reading through the political parties’ manifestos, it is clear young children continue to be forgotten.

The Centre for Early Childhood Development’s review of the manifestos of the largest political parties highlights how little consideration is given to the particular needs of South Africa’s youngest.

While most political parties include some mention of ECD, they tend to focus narrowly on early learning. Recognition of the importance of responsive caregiving, good health or adequate nutrition is scant.

Responsive caregiving, in particular, is completely overlooked: no political party includes clear plans for supporting parents and families to ensure that their children are protected from harm, receive love and care, and have their needs understood and met.

Alarmingly, no political party includes plans to improve coordination and delivery of services for young children, either: a startling omission, giving the fundamental importance of coordination in delivering the five components of nurturing care.

To reverse years of neglect of our youngest citizens, we need early childhood development to be top of the political agenda. That is why the Real Reform for ECD Movement’s ECD Manifesto is so important.

The ECD Manifesto is the result of extensive consultation with the ECD sector. It sets out key actions that must be taken in order to ensure that South Africa’s young children can grow, develop and thrive.

These include ensuring that nutrition support reaches all eligible children attending ECD centres, increasing the value of the ECD subsidy with additional amounts to support the inclusion of children with disabilities, and increasing the value of the Child Support Grant so that it meets the food poverty line.

We are 30 years into our democracy, and the government has yet to properly support and invest in our youngest children and the vital work of those who care for them. The period from 2024 to 2029 is our time to change this.

Already, over 5,000 people and more than 120 organisations have shown their support for the ECD Manifesto. We call on parents, caregivers, grandparents, aunties, uncles, anyone who cares about children and anyone who cares about the future of South Africa to stand with us and sign on to the ECD Manifesto.

We call on all political parties to endorse the ECD Manifesto too.

In doing so, they will show their commitment to unlocking the potential of young children, to caring for the needs of parents and families, to supporting and respecting women and the work that they do, and to realising the just, equal, and caring society we strive to become.

A party for the children is a party for the future.

(Tatiana Kazim is a senior legal researcher at the Equal Education Law Centre and Kayin Scholtz is the Project Lead of Umncedi at DG Murray Trust. They both represent their organisations on the Real Reform of ECD steering committee. Views expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp.)