Leanne Reid from Learning in Reach shares a harrowing look at what will happen to South African children if Early Childhood Development (ECD) Centres are forced to remain closed.
Lavender Hill, South Africa (20 January 2021) – A four-year-old girl walks the street like she owns the place. She greets people she passes and asks around for a R2 coin. Success! Off she goes to the corner shop to buy a packet of bright orange MSG-filled chippies. She’s streetwise like a KFC burger, although she hasn’t seen one of those in a while.
In a country riddled with violence against children, she’s unsupervised.
In a country fighting a Covid-19 pandemic, she’s unmasked.
She wanders into the play park. They’re off-limits during level 3 lockdown, but no-one is monitoring compliance in this street. There’s no hand-sanitiser to protect her from the hundreds of grubby hands that have touched the metal play-equipment before her.
Looking up, she sees other children pass with empty margarine tubs in their hands. Hunger gnaws in her gut. It’s lunch time. She runs home to get her tub and walks with the stream of children and hopeful adults (who will be served last if there is anything left), to the local feeding queue. Here she gets a spoonful of carbs, perhaps a token spoon of yellow veg, depending on what the auntie running the kitchen was able to scrounge together from meagre donations. In all likelihood, there will be some white bread. Between chippies and carb-fuelled meals, diabetes is rife in this community, but eating healthy food is expensive, and beggars can’t be choosers.
She stands with her hands out and her beggars’ bowl at the ready, jostling others larger than her, anxious to be served before the pot is emptied. “Jou ma se…” she yells as she elbows an older boy. She’s learnt big words in her tender years.
Fortunately, this week she starts preschool. She’ll walk into a classroom, wash her hands, wear a mask, receive a nutritious breakfast, lunch and two snacks, and be supported along her early learning journey by a capable, trained, nurturing teacher.
Or will she?
For more than 3 months of 2020, ECD centres sat on the side-lines while matrics and Grade 7’s, followed by all DBE grades were allowed to go back to school. Unlike government schools, the majority of these ECD centres are not subsidised by government. Those lucky to have made it through the DSD registration system receive a measly R17 a day per child to cover food, rent, utilities and hopefully a trained teacher, but more likely a babysitter. But the reality is, this only applies to 17% of eligible children.
Recent data suggests “just under a million children may not have a service to return back to due to Covid-19”. With centres closed, parents returning to work at Level 3, lockdown looked to more informal solutions to childcare- hired help, a neighbour or an older sibling. I’m aware of a child sitting with a “nanny” at the local shebeen all day, but it is visible to all the number of children milling about in the streets with no supervision at all.
For our little four-year-old, and thousands of others like her, not going to preschool means not being fed. Not going to preschool means being in the care of neighbours, siblings or being unsupervised, putting them at risk of opportunistic predators violating their vulnerability. Not going to preschool means stunted growth, development and learning that they will not recover from – ever.
At the best of times, our government has not demonstrated the will to prioritise and support Early Childhood Development. But right now, we are at the worst of times. And it is at this time that the sector and our children need us make a dramatic change in our attitudes to this critical level of care.
ECD centres are an essential service to the majority of our South African children, for their current and long-term health as well as their social, emotional, physical and intellectual development. If we had prioritised spending R360 per day on our young, vulnerable children rather than our convicted criminals (2019 data) for the last 20 years, perhaps we would have more doctors and nurses fighting this disease, more scientists researching cures and more engineers innovating and creating solutions.
Hunger and violence will be the death of their futures, if not them.
While our government is preoccupied with beach patrols, spraying disabled grant-seekers with water, cutting our lights and exploiting the opportunity for tender irregularities in the vaccine supply chain, we turn to you, citizens of South Africa, to chart the course for our country that will see us arrive in 20 years at a more promising land.
By investing in our youngest citizens today and ensuring they have access to quality education with trained preschool teachers, we can change the blueprint to develop leaders, thinkers and doers who will create, innovate and evolve in ways we can’t imagine.
Donate to an ECD scholarship to give a child access to quality ECD.
You can support Learning in Reach’s ECD Scholarship programme here to ensure there are fewer 4-year-olds being unsupervised.