Disempowering a generation

The Cape Times first published this article on 17 October 2013. Read the text below, or click here to open a PDF.

Obstacle course: If the empowerment of a generation is a national priority, concentrating on early childhood development is essential

Busie almost appeared to deflate with resignation as she explained that “the problem with the Eastern Cape’s Department of Social Development is very simple. They have no idea about rural education and even less interest in children.”

I met Busie Ngqengelele, of The Loaves and Fishes Network, to discuss early childhood development (ECD). Early childhood is the period from birth until the primary years, when children develop most quickly. In these years, poor educational opportunities, child protection failings or nutritional deficiencies can have lifelong impacts.

Looking at the ECD situation in the rural Eastern Cape, it’s easy to understand Busie’s view. A generation is not being adequately prepared for school and that begins the process of their everlasting disempowerment.

Colleen Davies helps run an NGO operating around Kidd’s Beach. Colleen said that in 2003 “a teacher wrote to a friend asking for help to build a shack for a pre-primary class”. Colleen and the others, who were motivated to establish the Phakamisa Projects as a result of the letter, learned that the culpability for the woeful state of facilities at the school rested with two provincial government departments.

Crèches and day-care centres are, in theory, the responsibility of the Department of Social Development. For five consecutive years Social Development failed to register the day-care component of the school, meaning it couldn’t access its subsidy.

The Department of Education is accountable for Grade R onwards, the foundation year for primary school. A complaint I heard from Colleen and others in the Eastern Cape is that the Department of Education funds Grade R teachers’ salaries but won’t necessarily fund the development of a Grade R classroom or equipment to go in it, as was the case with this school.

The indefensible neglect of two government departments for half a decade led to Phakamisa Projects purchasing, converting and fitting out two shipping containers, one for a day-care centre and a second for a Grade R classroom.

One of the children benefiting from the work of Phakamisa Projects

Colleen summarised the importance of ECD: “to pass matric you first need a good primary education, and for that you need quality pre-primary education. That’s why since 2003, Phakamisa Projects has focused on this crucial first step.” Unfortunately Phakamisa Projects doesn’t have the funding it needs to assist all the ignored schools in its area.

When there is a need for an ECD facility in the rural Eastern Cape, women often establish one, even if they have no formal education or teaching qualifications. Around 80 women are currently benefiting from a groundbreaking three-year programme designed specifically for rural Xhosa-speaking child carers who lack formal qualifications or education themselves.

The scheme provides the carers with on the job training so that upon completion they can enrol for a formal ECD-related National Qualifications Framework (NQF) qualification. It’s a pioneering approach that’s been so successful it was judged to be the most comprehensive ECD programme nationwide, with Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe presenting the award. Unfortunately Social Development will not support the scheme, which has been created by East London-based NGO The Loaves and Fishes Network.

The Network’s chairman, Brendan Connellan, was exasperated when he explained: “Social Development look for reasons why they can’t help us, rather than find ways they can. They say they only support accredited educational programmes on the NQF, but they won’t assist us to gain accreditation for our programme and don’t see that without the prior training we provide to rural child carers, they would not be able to obtain an accredited qualification if they enrolled for one.”

Outside one of facilities paid for by The Loaves and Fishes Network

Brendan’s lowest point in dealing with Social Development was when he and others from the Network met national minister Bathabile Dlamini, who “agreed to meet us but then barely listened to what we said, didn’t seem at all interested in rural education, didn’t want to take any action and at one point walked out of the meeting during our presentation”. There remains no Social Development equivalent to the network’s programme.

The Children’s Act requires ECD facilities to be formally registered and for ECD employees to have clearance certificates proving they’re not listed on the Child Protection Register.

Maeve McKiernan of Friends in Ireland, an NGO assisting ECD centres in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, told me that gaining clearance certificates and completing the ECD facility registration process is close to impossible, her applications “are generally ignored by Social Development”.

McKiernan concluded that the failure to properly implement the child protection system has two main negative impacts. First, we don’t know if people working with children are a danger, and second, several organisations, such as the lottery, understandably only fund ECD facilities which are properly registered. Funding opportunities for ECD facilities in desperate need are therefore missed for want of Social Development processing registration applications.

It’s not uncommon for children in the Eastern Cape to gain their only cooked meal at their ECD centre. Social Development provides funding of a miserable R15 (US$1.50 or £1.00) per child per day. Half this sum is for nutrition and the other half meant to cover the salary of the ECD practitioners, learning materials and administration costs.

Inside one of the ECD facilities funded by Phakamisa Projects

If prioritising the empowerment of a generation is a national priority, that must mean concentrating on ECD. Social Development’s budget should be increased to raise this paltry R15 to an amount enabling the creation of genuinely nutritious balanced meals (as well as decent pay for ECD practitioners and provision of decent learning materials). The money is there, if only the will were to join it. In the financial year ending in March 2013, the Eastern Cape’s provincial government failed to spend R1.4 billion of money it had been allocated, money which was returned to the National Treasury.

At every step, rural Eastern Cape learners seem prevented from gaining a quality education and developing to the fullest. It’s heartening to see the dedication of the voluntary sector, but education is a government role and one which should be close to the top priority for a government genuinely committed to empowerment.

Underperformance in the Eastern Cape is far from a new topic, but perhaps we should change our language. The government likes to talk about the importance of empowerment and transformation.

Real widespread generational empowerment comes from quality education enabling all learners to access the opportunities of their choice to fulfil their potential. The early childhood years are the essential building block for every subsequent stage of learning, and therefore employment.

Entities hampering this process are surely involved in institutionalised disempowerment of a generation. It seems like the Eastern Cape’s departments of Social Development and Education are firmly in this category.