At least two million South African children go to bed hungry every day and a large portion of them live in informal settlements.
The Housing Development Agency says that more than four million people reside in these settlements and they account for at least 14% of the country’s population.
Conditions in the informal settlements are harsh and life is hard. Most homes are made of scraps; corrugated iron, cardboard, sheets of plastic all held together to form some sort of shelter.
When the sun shines down, the shacks are as hot as frying pans, in the rain, they are as leaky as colanders and in the winter, as cold as refrigerators. Homes often comprise just one room and there is little to no insulation and ventilation.
They are difficult to keep clean, let alone hygienic. Even the most basic of household tasks can become health and safety hazards.
There is often no running water or a reliable source of electricity. Sewage regularly trickles down the roads.
Litter lines the pathways and open areas and streams are clogged with rubbish.
Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres in these informal settlements do not look much different and are seldom fit for education.
Most centres are run by women (affectionately called “mamas”) who care about children but do not have teaching qualifications to ensure that those in their care are adequately stimulated.
It is common to find children huddled on the floor doing very little. This is simply because the mama cannot afford educational equipment as basic as posters, toys or stationery and does not have the know-how to teach them.
A lot of parents cannot pay the nominal school fees.
One frequently hears how these mamas go without salaries, allow children to attend the centre free of charge and use what precious little they have to provide for those in their care, often having to improvise to come up with ingenious solutions.
The women often travel long distances with buckets to collect potable water. Because of a limited supply of clean water, water-borne and hygiene-related diseases, including Covid-19, can spread easily.
Though they may be poorly capacitated and heavily under-resourced, these ECD centres play an essential role in informal settlements because they provide basic care and protection to young children, enabling parents to work or seek work.
They also keep the children from loitering in the streets.
Although the education may not be of a great standard, the reality is that a little is better than no education at all.
JAM South Africa, a humanitarian relief organisation, supports about 3 000 informal ECD centres in the country by providing nutritious meals. The organisation feeds 120 000 children a day. It also supports the women to help them become compliant with the department of social development’s regulations.
It is only once they meet these stringent standards that they can apply for assistance from the government.
But getting there is an almost impossible task.
Finding the means to effectively support, assist and develop these informal ECD centres and the organisations who help them is a significant opportunity to improve the future of the children and the country and should be a top priority.