/ 21 May 2021

Unattainable and untenable: Hearings expose problems in the early childhood development sector

(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)
(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

Members of Parliament should be activists for early childhood development reform, ECD advocates said during oral hearings on the Children’s Amendment Bill.

The hearings started on Tuesday with a session on proposed ECD-related amendments to the Act. Stakeholders, including principals, organisations, lawyers and academics, were consistent in their pleas for holistic legislative and regulatory reform after decades of the sector struggling with untenable registration and compliance requirements.

Speaking to the organisation Ilifa Labantwana in November last year, Margaret Xhanyiwe Mathe, an ECD provider in Kraaifontein, described registration and compliance as “very complicated”, involving “too many government departments” and “unfair”. 

“I have to start at the town planning [department], then the town planning [department] has to take documents to another department, from that department to another department, from there to the fire department, then finally to the department of social development, where they will give me the certificate if I am approved,” she said. “Everything is taking so long. When we opened in April after the level one lockdown they gave us a period of six months to get registered, but it is impossible because all these departments are taking their time.”

Confronted with this impenetrable barrier of legal red tape, most ECD providers remain unregistered and, as a result, unsubsidised. These providers (primarily women) are plagued by uncertainty. “We are running the centres with fear because we don’t know what the department [of social development] is going to do,” said Mathe.

This system has a devastating effect on children, particularly those in poor areas.  According to an Ilifa Labantwana analysis, most children between the age of zero and five are not attending early childhood development programmes. More than one million children are in unregistered programmes. Fewer than one million children are in registered centres and only about 620 000 children attend a subsidised programme. A quarter of children under the age of five are nutritionally stunted. 

These figures reflect an alarming reality: South Africa has an early childhood development crisis. Without these building blocks in early life, children’s rights are undermined and they are not being given a fair chance to thrive. 

Missed opportunity

For more than a decade, the ECD sector has called for legislative reform and the development of an enabling legal framework. There was a sense of optimism when the Bill was tabled before parliament in August last year. The hope was that the amendments would ease the legislative roadblocks. Instead, the Bill’s proposed changes did little to address the most severe issues affecting the provision of early childhood development. 

Even worse, the Bill proposed regressive measures, such as diluting the mandatory obligation to prioritise provincial funding to poor areas (by turning it into a discretionary power). Inconsistent terminology was also introduced, threatening to weaken the pro-poor mechanisms in the Act, which are crucial for bringing ECD providers into the regulatory fold.

In response to these developments, stakeholders initiated the real Reform for ECD campaign. Viewing the Bill as a missed opportunity, campaign supporters — including 182 organisations and more than 1 500 individuals — called for more holistic and meaningful reform. More than 1 600 submissions on the ECD aspects of the Bill were submitted to parliament. 

The South African Local Government Association objected to the Bill on the basis that municipalities were not adequately consulted. Poor consultation and coordination with the department of basic education on the Bill was also raised as a concern, particularly in light of the imminent migration of ECD services from the social development department to the education department.

Plea for coherent reforms

Facing the wave of objections to the ECD-related aspects of the Bill, the parliamentary portfolio committee on social development said last week it would be inclined to reject the Bill’s ECD amendments and deal with them in a second amendment process.

During Tuesday’s oral hearings, stakeholders emphasised that while the Bill’s amendments were largely inadequate and could not be adopted as is, any second amendment bill process would have to be considered urgently and within a clear timeframe. They also urged that there be a departmental “champion” to drive the process to ensure reforms are not left in limbo again.

In response to the presentations, the portfolio committee chairperson, Mondli Gungubele, said: “You shook us emotionally, you stimulated us intellectually, you woke us up on serious issues.”

When oral hearings resumed on Wednesday, the education department presented its views on the Bill. Its submissions reflected many of those presented by ECD stakeholders. It called for a single, comprehensive early childhood development chapter and a streamlined registration system. 

Also encouraging was the department’s response to a question from Gungubele about the call for urgency regarding the second amendment bill and the need for a departmental champion. The department put up its hand to be that champion.  

These developments are positive; however significant work still lies ahead. MPs must provide active oversight over the law reform process and be engaged activists in the call for real ECD Reform.