Impumelelo - The Stellenbosch Academy for Social Innovation

Quality early childhood development, a prerequisite for addressing the national burden of unemployment

I recently attended a seminar on the South African labour market at the Investec headquarters in Cape Town, to listen to the conflicting viewpoints of two prominent figures in this area. Loan Sharpe of Adcorp argued that unemployment rates in South Africa are wildly over exaggerated due to a burgeoning informal sector, whereas Professor Servaas Van De Berg of the University of Stellenbosch provided a stinging counter claim, suggesting that Adcorps figures are not to be taken seriously on the basis of their inherently poor research methodologies. A lively discussion ensued in an attempt to ascertain a truly representative figure for national unemployment.

While listening I began to seriously question the necessity of arguing so vehemently on such specificities. I had attended the seminar in the hope that I would be party to a constructive debate, to my disappointment however, I was subjected to a meaningless squabble over statistics. Surely, regardless of any statistical uncertainties as to the exact unemployment rates, we can all agree that unemployment is unacceptably high and its consequences permeate across society. A considerable underlying cause of this crisis is the huge skills deficits nationally, a problem created by the systemic dysfunction in the education system. For any type of meaningful and proactive debate on the South African labour market specific attention to the poor education system which is the core culprit for our flailing labour market is required, as opposed to inconsequential quarrelling over whose data is the most accurate.

The pernicious rate of unemployment is unlikely to decline until substantial improvements in education are achieved, however South Africa’s education will remain in crisis unless we increase access for the poor and improve the quality of Early Childhood Development (ECD) programmes. According to UNICEF this is vital because “Early Childhood Development has come to be regarded as critical for establishing the foundation for academic success in schools for children from disadvantaged backgrounds”. It has become common knowledge in SA that children raised in poor families are most at risk of infant death, low birth-weight, stunted growth, poor adjustment to school, increased repetition and school dropout.

Research has shown unequivocally that children who attend quality ECD programmes are more likely to succeed in school and find work as adults, and less likely to become involved in crime. Still, there is a vast majority of children in South Africa starting Grade 1 each year without having attended a structured early learning programme.

Publicity around unregistered educare centres is often negative: we hear about them when a child has been injured or has died in an unfortunate accident and there are calls to shut the centre down. These incidents are tragic, and we must strive to prevent them. However, instead of pointing fingers at unregistered centres, we need to extend a helping hand. The vast majority of women who launch ECD centres are passionate about helping children – but need guidance and resources to do it safely and well.

Take for instance Nokhaya Manxiwa-Nqeza who, in 1996, signed up for a teacher training course and opened her mother’s one-room shack in Philippi, Cape Town to 40 children. “There were only a few crèches in my area. I saw parents not knowing where to leave their children safely,” Nokhaya says. “Sometimes children were left with neighbours where they were abused or neglected, or they played in the streets where it was unsafe.”

In the early years, the obstacles she faced seemed insurmountable. Without funding, she couldn’t pay teachers, and struggled to buy food and educational equipment. To qualify for government subsidies, she had to complete confusing registration documents and meet a long list of requirements that included compliance with health and safety regulations, structural upgrades, daily programmes and qualified educators.

The requirements are designed to ensure minimum standards of care and education, but are difficult and expensive to realise in poor communities. In her first eight years of operation, Nokhaya only received one donation – R3000 from the City Council.

Published in The Citizen

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