State neglect of young children leads to lifelong damage

Only about one in four early learning programmes get subsidies, and that funding is only R17 per child per day and has not increased since 2019

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Between 10% and 25% of children under the age of two – the critical first 1,000 days of brain development – are cared for during the day by someone other than their primary caregiver. Archive photo: Ashraf Hendricks (photo edited to remove name of child)

  • As many as one in four children under the age of two are cared for during the day by someone other than their primary caregiver, often in an early childhood development centre.
  • These centres perform a crucial role, but few get funding and they struggle in a quagmire of bureaucratic obstacles across three levels of government.
  • Those which do get subsidies get R17 per child per day, including R6.80 for food, and this amount has not increased since 2019.

Earlier this month, representatives of political parties, ranging from the ANC and MK to the Freedom Front Plus, gathered at a hall in Crawford, Cape Town, to be interrogated by Cape Talk’s Lester Kiewiet on their policies on early childhood development.

There was much waffling about prioritising the youth, but little evidence of any concrete plans by the parties, despite the availability of a wealth of excellent research, to tackle what is arguably one of the most critical, long-term issues facing the country.

According to StatsSA, 27% of South African children suffer from stunting, a condition that reflects the cumulative effects of chronic malnutrition. Stunting has lifelong consequences for intellectual development and physical health. It leads to inter-generational poverty, burgeoning health care needs and loss of human capital for the nation.

By primary school, over 80% of children cannot read for meaning. Tshepo Mantje, of civic organisation Real Reform for Early Childhood Development (ECD), says poor nutrition and lack of cognitive development is to blame.

Campaigners say the malnutrition that leads to stunting could be tackled by providing proper nutrition at early learning centres. Between 10 and 25% of children under the age of two – the critical first 1,000 days of brain development – are cared for during the day by someone other than their primary caregiver. The number for two to five-year-olds is much higher.

A 2021 census by the Department of Basic Education shows that 1.6-million children are enrolled in Early Learning Programmes (ELPs). ELPs include centres with day mothers to the more formal early learning centres (ECDs). Almost half these children come from the poorest families.

Proper nutrition could be directed through these ELPs, says Mantje. “And this should be supplied to both registered and unregistered centres.”


National, provincial and municipal governments have varying requirements for registration, which results in a complex web of bureaucracy that already stretched ELP providers struggle to negotiate.

The department’s census shows that 69% of ELPs’ funding is from fees paid by parents, the majority of whom earn less than R1,000 per month per household.

Just over one in four ELPs get government funding - R17 per child per day with R6.80 ring-fenced for nutrition.

“That sum was set in 2019. Inflation has increased costs significantly. It is not adequate for proper nutrition,” says Mantje.

Tristan Görgens, director of strategy, research and policy in the Western Cape government, says a baseline study carried out last year revealed that 17.5% of children in the Western Cape suffer from stunting. This is less than the national figure of 27.4%, but “way too high for a middle income country”.

“The conundrum for the state is that, while we interact with mothers and young children a fair amount during pregnancy and in the first few weeks after birth, after about six to 14 weeks, we lose track of them. There is really no other space in which the state interacts with mothers and young children routinely until they enter school at age five and that is much too late. That is why we have become increasingly interested in ELPs as an area of intervention.”

One of the major obstacles to registration, says Görgens, is municipal bylaws. “Being registered tends to be around planning permits and fire safety. This makes it incredibly hard for those centres in the middle of informal settlements. You can’t get planning permission if the whole settlement isn’t recognised.”

Bureaucratic obstacles increased when responsibility for ELPs moved from the Department of Social Welfare to the Department of Basic Education in 2021.

This was in recognition of the importance of early learning to a child’s future development, but it was also incredibly disruptive and confusing for the sector, says Görgens. All the systems for registration and payment had to migrate from the one department to the other. Principals were left trying to figure out what form to fill in and which office to contact.

The overwhelming majority of ELP principals and owners are women. Görgens says they could be an entry point for the state into the community.

“These women know everything that happens on their pitch. They will know when a child in their community is in trouble.

“This is a remarkably organised and resilient sector. They are hustling every day to make it work.”

“There is no national funding to provide either food or cash to those families.” says Görgens.

TOPICS:  Children Education

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