See a child as a citizen with rights

It is not just government policy that is shaping early childhood educational provision in the country, but also neoliberal economics and the hidden hands of state capture, resulting in a pervasive network of patronage and corruption, which undermines democratic processes.

But the government has made early childhood development and care an important goal in the National Development Plan.

It is tragic that our most vulnerable are at the hands of a “bimodal” system of delivery of health, education and social development — one for those who can afford to pay for private education, health and other services, and another for the poor.

“We are world leaders in income inequality, racial tension, rape and illicit financial transactions,” according to Jacques Pauw in his book, The President’s Keepers. We are also controlled by traditional patriarchal values and seemingly a reverence for power, privilege and status, which “grinds the face of the poor”. The fact that Nelson Mandela’s government signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is negated by the heavy “shadow” of President Jacob Zuma’s government and a rapacious and corrupt elite who hand out largesse to “friends” and who seemingly cannot be held accountable.

Individual enrichment of an elite is always at the expense of common welfare. This hits the poorest and most vulnerable first. Long-term strategies for a sustainable and equitable society tend to be jettisoned in the name of short-term monetary gain (money in the pocket).

Lack of early childhood development and poor service delivery at the base of society, where one finds the most vulnerable, means more money for criminal elements at the top to loot. At the same time, discourse on quality early childhood education as a way to develop human capital — a social and economic investment — is being promoted by the World Bank and United Nations Children’s Fund. If children get a better early childhood education, the argument goes, they will be able to lift themselves out of poverty (the bootstrap theory). In neoliberal discourses, child poverty is the problem of parents themselves.

In post-apartheid South Africa, we have a bimodal system of delivery — private for the wealthy or public for the poor — instead of the old white/black divide. All parents have an “image” of education and poor parents in particular see their child’s education as a way out of poverty.

But we live in a society in which the statistician general has announced that unemployment is at the highest level in 13 years and where graduates say they can’t find jobs to pay off their student loans. We have 9.3-million job seekers and many graduates have to leave the country to find work elsewhere, unless they come under political patronage and can get rich quickly through corruption and nepotism.

At the same time, there is a discourse in government circles about early childhood development as “job creation” for the unemployed and unemployable. This reframes early childhood development as an economic entrepreneurial activity that can create jobs and cultivate a future work force as “human capital”, instead of being about children’s rights, including the right to participation, the right to a voice and the right to play.

But, because of high unemployment and the resultant desperation to earn money, early childhood teachers are vulnerable to exploitation. Even grade R teachers with degrees earn extremely low “salaries” from their “grant-in-aid”, such as the grant-in-aid per teacher of R6 500 in KwaZulu-Natal.

The provision of early childhood education for those up to the age of four is largely in the hands of private individuals. The owners or bosses of community-based early childhood development centres may have the welfare of the children at heart but are either holding out a begging bowl or seeing their centre as a “pot of gold”, a way to extract a profit. If they are a church, they may see the centre as a way of getting a nice rent, for instance. Market forces mean the more fees you get from running your private preschool/crèche/early childhood development centre, the more money in the pocket, so the more children in a class, the more money (regardless of staff/child ratios).

The rich can also be exploited. There is little or no monitoring of early childhood development facilities by local or provincial government authorities, and the wealthy may ignore the required qualifications for early childhood teachers as lower qualified teachers can be paid lower wages. Less-qualified teachers get paid less. Of course, the lower the salary, the more money in the pocket of the owner.

Looking more closely, early childhood development projects in poor areas are striving to hold the fort against poverty, including the poverty of their owners. The teachers and owners have their own financial struggle to survive and put food on their table.

The average salary a preschool teacher earns is apparently about R2 500 a month, and that depends on the fees the centre is able to charge the parents — and if the parents are able to pay the fees. For many, the amount charged is less and can vary from month to month.

These early childhood development projects may have been started because of the real suffering of children who need safety, security and enough nutritious food to eat. Desperate parents are themselves struggling for survival, or to carry on with their studies in the hope of a job. Children are vulnerable to abuse and rape (as statistics tell us). And some are even dying in the early childhood development centres/preschools/crèches; babies and toddlers are particularly vulnerable. According to news reports, two died in Gauteng in the second half of this year. One choked on a bottle of milk.

We saw what happened in the Life Esidimeni tragedy when a public responsibility (in this case for mental health) was privatised. To prevent other tragedies from unfolding means building a different, more equitable and democratic society, in which the government takes more responsibility. This should include financial responsibility for early childhood provision rather than depending on neoliberal profit-making.

Unfortunately it often happens that, when an early childhood development centre receives financial support or can improve its services, it will then raise its fees. The poor, who cannot afford those fees, then seek another early childhood development centre charging cheaper fees, which is probably more poorly equipped and provisioned. Health and safety, let alone norms and standards, may not be adequate but parents may believe they have no other option. Poor children slip down the early childhood development childcare ladder — they don’t climb up that ladder.

The Life Esidimeni tragedy makes it imperative to encourage critical thinking on the causes of the problems we face and the effect of state capture on the most vulnerable, including our youngest citizens.

In neoliberalism, there is both a symbolic and a material violence against the poor, those whose lives seem not to matter. It is material wealth that gives life chances. Instead of our taxes reconstructing and developing our country, our wealth is being looted. Citizens must stand up and become champions of children.

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice; we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself,” said Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and anti-Nazi dissident,.

Early childhood development is a vital way to build democracy. Democratic collaborative partnerships need to be constructed at local, municipal and provincial level, as well as public/private partnerships, to uphold the value or ethos of early childhood education and care. We need “champions for children” (children’s rights activists, citizens as well as conscientious civil servants) at municipal level to bring together all role-players, from town planners and city engineers to parks and gardens departments and civic and faith-based organisations. Children and their parents have a “right to land”, sites on which early childhood development centres can be built by the municipality and which will safeguard children from dangers such as illegal electrical connections. There is a desperate need for civil society to run not-for-profit early childhood development centres and to build a participatory, democratic practice that is in the best interests of children.

Perhaps together we can search for new ways of upholding and defending the values of our democracy and build a vision of a different way of doing early childhood education and care in South Africa, as has been done using the Reggio Emilia approach, which arose out of the ashes of World War II and the fight against fascism.

Professor Carlina Rinaldi of Reggio Emilia clearly affirms the importance of the child as a “citizen”. “Recognising the child as citizen makes it necessary to re-examine the very concept of citizenship, but especially to revisit the organisation of all the social and educational places of children’s lives, not only early childhood centres and schools, but also hospitals, theatres, swimming pools, the town squares and streets, the architecture of our homes.

“We must reconceptualise participation and democracy itself. What is the relationship between rights and duties? A citizen, citizenship and therefore a concept of democracy is defined and expressed beyond traditional boundaries.”

Nora Saneka is a children’s rights activist and has been the principal of a pre-primary school for more than 20 years. She is the founder and chairperson of an inner-city early childhood development forum and is a doctoral student in educational psychology. These are her own views

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