Early childhood development (ECD) is once again a discussion point within South Africa’s education system – specifically the lack of enforcement of learning interventions from a young enough age. Sadly, the reality of unequal access to educational opportunities continues remains a reality.
The importance of these interventions cannot be overstated. The first 1 000 days of a child’s life are crucial, laying the foundation for optimum health and development that the rest of the child’s life will rely on. Meeting a child’s needs during these first days requires the right care, opportunities for learning and nutrition. According to UNICEF, this “influences not only whether the child will survive, but also his or her ability to grow, learn and rise out of poverty. As such, it contributes to society’s long-term health, stability and prosperity”.
However, this is not a reality for all South Africa’s youngest citizens. According to statistics on early childhood development highlighted at the first ECD Summit hosted by the Western Cape government in October last year, 58% of children under the age of five in South Africa are not enrolled in any ECD. Added to this, only seven million out of an estimated 12 million children in this age group are being fed every day, leading to 30% of children being physically and mentally stunted by malnutrition.
Because of this lack of grassroots intervention for children, it is estimated that only 30% will be able to cope in school, while 60% will need intervention and 10% are not likely to make it through the system at all.
Addressing the roots of inequality
President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the developmental needs of children in his 2019 state of the nation address with his decision to shift ECD centres away from the Department of Social Development to Basic Education. Importantly, this established ECDs as a necessary foundation for the success of the entire school system.
Added to this, former public protector, Professor Thuli Madonsela, is at the forefront of ECD advocacy. Her ambitious yet commendable ‘M Plan’ reiterates the importance of supporting the development of quality ECDs for South Africa’s youngest citizens, and that the need for improvement goes far beyond an educational approach. Achieving true social justice in South Africa starts with laying a solid foundation and investing in the youth.
“In South Africa, who and where you are born is a key determinant of where you will end up in life, and where your children, and your children’s children, are likely to end up,” said Madonsela at an Indaba Foundation address to private sector industries earlier in . “Consistently, there should not be a gap between what you say you stand for, and where you are.”
This brings us to the important role that the private sector plays in supporting the establishment of more properly run, registered and accredited ECDs across the country. Ajuga, which is an initiative of the Cipla Foundation, addresses these inequalities through the launch of a number of ECDs in formerly disadvantaged and underserved communities.
Laying the infrastructure for these facilities is a crucial first step, ensuring that ECDs being built are sustainable in the future. ECD infrastructure, facilitation and running, however, requires adequate funding as well as a regulatory environment to prevent the process from being tied up in red tape and impeding much-needed progress.
Ajuga ECDs – the most recently established being the Siyakhula centre in the Barcelona community of Gugulethu – are not simply spaces where children are kept for the day, but offer children the mental stimulation, daily nutrition, responsive care, safety and security they need to thrive in the first 1 000 days of life. This also sets children up to succeed in later years, giving them a better chance at building a bright and productive future for themselves.
In fact, according to UNICEF, children who receive the right nutrition during the first 1 000 days are 10 times more likely to overcome life-threatening diseases that typically affect children and are more likely to encourage healthy living within their own families as adults.
Ajuga ECD centres are also run by members of the surrounding community who are aware of the area’s unique context and circumstances, ensuring the centres’ sustainability. This of course creates job and entrepreneurial opportunities for the community too, particularly for women.
The impact of being able to attend a good ECD is profoundly positive in a child’s life. One study showed that early childhood education interventions can improve children’s development and act as a protective factor against the future onset of adult disease and disability. It can also help them achieve school readiness which gives them a better chance at lifelong employment, income, and good overall health.
Meeting the formative needs of children on cognitive, physical, and nutritive levels in the first 1,000 days of life gives them a chance at making a better, brighter future for themselves and their loved ones. In the South African context specifically, where childhood interventions desperately need to be ramped up, having access to quality education, daily meals, and the right stimulation, in spaces that are safe and secure, give children the steppingstones they need to uplift and empower themselves through better access to developmental opportunities.
- UNICEF: First 1000 Days the critical window to ensure that children survive and thrive. Accessed on 08.12.21 from – https://www.unicef.org/southafrica/media/551/file/ZAF-First-1000-days-brief-2017.pdf
- Daily Maverick: Thuli Madonsela’s ‘M Plan’ – could it be South Africa’s answer to eradicating poverty and inequality? https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-11-05-thuli-madonselas-m-plan-could-it-be-south-africas-answer-to-eradicating-poverty-and-inequality/
- UNICEF. First 1 000 Days – The Critical Window to Ensure that Children Survive and Thrive. 2017: 3
- Halfon N, Hochstein M. Life course health development: an integrated framework for developing health, policy, and research. Milbank Quarterly 2002;80(3):433-79.
- Hahn RA, Barnett WS, Knopf JA, et al. Early Childhood Education to Promote Health Equity: A Community Guide Systematic Review. Journal of public health management and practice 2016;22(5):E1-E8.