Invest in children to boost SA’s recovery


South Africa has committed to achieving inclusive, rights-based, sustainable development. To do this, it must unlock the potential of its most significant asset — the human capital that resides in its children.

What do we mean by sustainable, inclusive rights-based development and who is responsible?

It is defined by the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals that, if achieved, will secure a shared vision for the future. That vision is one of peaceful, safe, economically stable, and prosperous societies where every person is a socially, economically and politically active citizen.

How are we doing? 

Not very well. Poverty and inequality levels are persistently high. Unemployment was high before Covid-19 but has since increased. Violence, especially against women and children, has reached epidemic proportions. Governance is weak, especially at local levels. Our democracy is under threat because of corruption, limited accountability to the electorate and social unrest.

What will it take to change this situation effectively and permanently? 

We can only achieve lasting change if every child in South Africa develops to their full potential to:

  • Become economically active and pay taxes;
  • Be politically active through peaceful, democratic processes;
  • Become ethical, visionary leaders;
  • Become good governors and administrators of our precious national resources;
  • Become responsible citizens that respect the rights of others to be safe and free from discrimination; and
  • Become good parents who provide nurturing care to their children.

This can only be achieved if South Africa adopts transformative, child-centred governance that brings about a permanent change by developing the capacities and competencies of its children to be agents of sustainable development.

The solution is complex, long-term and multigenerational. We must direct our collective national resources to build strong human capital foundations. Permanent and lasting change requires that this, and future generations of children are nurtured to be effective political leaders, responsible and caring citizens, responsive and nurturing parents, effective governors and administrators, and active employers and employees.

Who is responsible for developing the skills and knowledge children need to take up their role as custodians of sustainable development?

The primary duty bearers are parents and the education system. Both, however, are ill-equipped to fulfil their roles and develop 21st century citizens.

The evidence is overwhelming: unlocking human capital depends on every child, especially the most marginalised receiving nurturing, responsive caregiving from conception until they become adults themselves. 

The care children receive, especially in the early years, affects the growth and development of their bodies and brains, and ultimately their social, emotional and cognitive potential to become agents of sustainable development. 

The evidence is so compelling as to have convinced the World Health Organisation and the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef), which have co-developed two planning frameworks — the Nurturing Care Framework for Early Childhood Development and the Inspire Framework for ending violence against children — to guide governments on harnessing the evidence to develop transformational policies and programmes to build human capital for sustainable development. Central to both documents is the provision of support and services to enable responsive and nurturing care by parents and other caregivers. 

Parents lay the early foundations by ensuring, for example, their children are immunised, well-nourished, have received appropriate stimulation and early learning from birth, and have benefited from positive parenting and not been exposed to harsh discipline. 

Once these building blocks are in place, the education system can further their potential by providing quality, 21st century transformative education to ensure that every child acquires the knowledge and competencies they need to be agents of sustainable development.

At present, many parents and families lack the power to provide nurturing care. Multiple risks and adversities — amplified during Covid-19 — make it almost impossible for families to provide nurturing, responsive care. 

Equally so, schools are not providing the required 21st century education, which prepares children to take up their diverse roles in all aspects of 21st century society. It is the type of education that provides them with the facts and knowledge, skills and competencies they need to be active citizens, employers, taxpayers, parents, leaders and governors.

Achieving sustainable development, peace and good governance now, more than ever, requires a strong national system of family support, complemented by transformative quality education.

Our national system of family support needs to ensure that:

  • Every parent knows that the parenting they provide is directly linked to how their children’s bodies and brains will grow, whether they do well at school, whether they will have a job, whether they will be violent, or whether they will be nurturing caregivers themselves; and
  • That every parent and caregiver knows how to provide nurturing, responsive care. For example, that they know and understand how to provide developmentally supportive food and nutritional practices to avoid stunting; how to monitor development milestones and what to do if children are seen not to be on track; how to stimulate the cognitive development of babies and young children from birth and how to support older children once at school; how to follow positive parenting that affirms and builds children’s knowledge and self-confidence; and to avoid the use of harsh discipline and violence because it harms children’s cognitive and social development; and
  • That the risks preventing the provision of nurturing care are addressed through an appropriate package of family support. Generally public family support programmes take the limited form of social security by way of cash grants to overcome one of the biggest risks to providing nurturing care — that is poverty. 

But financial support alone is not enough. To address the multiple and intersecting impediments to providing nurturing care, families, parents and caregivers need a package of support that includes education on child development and nurturing care, workplace support for caregivers such as maternity leave and support for breast feeding; psychosocial support; positive parenting skills; access to employment opportunities; and material support for children with additional needs, such as devices for children with disabilities. 

The content and focus of the package must respond to local contextual risks and opportunities. 

Making nurturing care universal and ensuring optimal returns on our family support investments requires a 21st century education system that contributes to building a population of parents with the knowledge and skills needed to provide nurturing, responsive care. This requires a transformative curriculum that not only makes coding and robotics compulsory; that not only focuses on preparing children to be economically active.

To be truly transformative, schools must provide compulsory, examinable courses in child development, responsive parenting; civic and political responsibilities and rights; and focus on the critical skills needed for effective leadership and governance of the country. 

Let us get real. 

At a stretch, only a small number of children will use their robotics and coding education. Every child, however, needs, and will make use of child development, parenting, and civic education. 

Our education system is not equipped to meet this demand and associated sustainable development imperative.

Providing effective, population-scale family support and 21st century transformative education is a nonnegotiable if we are to have any chance of eradicating violence, poverty, and inequality.

To secure the required package of support across the child’s life course requires a coordinated, whole-of-society response. This in turn requires strong, national, visionary leadership by the president and his executive, as well as by civil society and business that will ensure state-wide recognition and the long-term commitment required to realise this developmental imperative. 

But leadership alone is not enough. We need effective and strategic government-wide management by the relevant ministries and departments such as social development, health and education of public resources to translate the commitment into effective, long-term, quality interventions rather than yet another round of campaigns, posters, and events.

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Patricia Martin
Patricia Martin is a child rights and governance consultant

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