ECD is a broad term involving opportunities for children to grow and thrive physically, cognitively, emotionally, socially, spiritually and morally. Fie picture Courtney Africa/African News Agency(ANA)
ECD is a broad term involving opportunities for children to grow and thrive physically, cognitively, emotionally, socially, spiritually and morally. Fie picture Courtney Africa/African News Agency(ANA)

Early Childhood Development key in eradicating poverty and inequality in SA

By Professor Eric Atmore Time of article published Sep 26, 2019

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Professor Eric Atmore’s talk at Imam Abdullah Haron Education Trust Memorial Lecture Wednesday 25 September 2019:

On the morning of Saturday 27th September 1969, 50 years ago, in the Maitland Police cells, Imam Abdullah Haron’s life was ended at age 45, by agents of the apartheid government. A leader of people was taken from our country in the prime of his life. The reason was that this righteous man was a threat to the racist and powerful, minority elite. He worked amongst the poorest communities of Cape Town, and was centrally involved in the political activities of the liberation organisations during these “brutally repressive times” as Professor Aslam Fataar describes this time. 

Professor Fataar goes on to write “Imam Haron’s revulsion for racism and its associated exclusionary practices was turned by him into a cultivated anti-apartheid gaze expressed from the Islamic perspective of a traditionally trained Imam.” 

I was 14 years old at the time.

The Imam was unwavering in his opposition to the Apartheid regime.

Looking at photographs of the Imam at the recently launched exhibition on his life and legacy, it is clear that here was a leader of the people of our beautiful country. In the photographs crowds attentively look up at the Imam as he speaks, captivated by his coherent and incisive argument for democracy, freedom and social justice.

The crowds that listened to him reflect the diversity and beauty of the South African people. The accompanying text sets out that the Imam was welcomed wherever he went – from Athlone to Woodstock to Langa, Nyanga and Gugulethu, and beyond.

Professor Aslam Fataar poses a challenge to us in 2019, writing that “An Opportunity resides in putting his example to proper use as ethical inspiration for life in 2019 and beyond.”

The Imam Abdullah Haron Education Trust was established in 2005 with the endorsement of the Haron family. It was established to promote the late Imam’s vision of empowering marginalised groups and individuals through education. 

At the launch of the Trust, the late Professor Neville Alexander said:

“This is where organisations such as the IAHET have a huge role to play in South Africa today – to raise the levels of literacy, to make it possible for all our children to become literate, to gain access not just to education, but to all those things that empower the marginalized.  It is important to understand that access to education for poor people continues to be a fundamental problem of this country.”

Through the Education Trust and many other initiatives, the legacy of Imam Abdullah Haron will be celebrated and live on. The Education Trust has chosen to build on the Imam’s legacy to create a better world for young children, a world in which young children are free from poverty, inequality and injustice. 

Professor Jonathan Jansen writes: “The Imam had a deep commitment to education. Even though he did not have the opportunity to proceed beyond primary schooling, he was passionate about education. Biographers recount that for his children he sought education, almost to the point of desperation.” But for the Imam education had to be coupled with justice and equity.

Where children are free and can access early education opportunities for healthy development abound. Over the next 30 minutes I will try to set this out for you.

As we are seated here this evening, poverty and inequality impact negatively on millions of people in urban and rural communities across South Africa. This has a particularly devastating effect on our children and families since it deprives them of their socio-economic rights and results in inadequate access to health care, education, social services and nutrition. As well as turning childhood into a time of adversity, it undermines the healthy development of the child. 

This has led former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to say, “poverty is the major obstacle to the realisation of children’s rights.”

Growing up in extreme poverty has many consequences. The most immediate of these include illness, stunted growth, delayed cognitive development and general lethargy. 

One initiative that overcomes the effects of poverty is the provision of good quality early childhood development programmes for young children, together with support for their families. Research in South Africa, and internationally, indicates that the early years are critical for development. The research shows that quality early childhood care, education and development leads to higher levels of social, emotional, cognitive and physical well-being in young children. 

These in turn lead to significant social, education and economic benefits later as youth and as adults. 

Globally, quality early childhood development opportunities for children are recognised as the foundation for success in life. The early years are recognised as the appropriate phase for young children to acquire the values, behaviours and attitudes that are important for the building of a peaceful, prosperous and democratic society.

Early and appropriate provisioning for children at risk can reverse the effects of deprivation and make it possible for children to grow and develop to their full potential, thus reducing the need for costly remedial interventions to address developmental lag and social problems later in life. 

Therefore, in order to overcome poverty and inequality in the most effective way, South Africa needs a much greater investment in early childhood development.

Imam Abdullah Haron
What do we want for our youngest children?

We all wish the best possible start in life for our children. This includes healthy physical development, good nutrition, being safe, a stimulating learning environment and opportunities to learn. With this in place our children thrive.

We want children who can think for themselves, can solve problems, have a positive self-image, can manage their own behaviour, are respectful towards others, are aware of diversity and are accepting of differences, and who can communicate.

Collectively, we want our young children to grow up to be productive citizens contributing to the well-being of our country in all its aspects.

But what is Early Childhood Development (ECD)?

Early childhood development is a broad term involving opportunities for children to grow and thrive physically, cognitively, emotionally, socially, spiritually and morally.

The age range is from conception to 9 years – more commonly from conception to 6 years of age. It is comprehensive and includes parents, caregivers and the wider community. It is more than the commonly used terms - educare, daycare, crèche, preschool, kindergarden and nursery school.

Why early childhood development?

The argument for ECD is now accepted globally.

International research tells us that a child who attends a quality ECD programme:

Performs better at school
Is less likely to need expensive remedial education
Is more likely to be healthier
Is less likely to get involved in crime and substance abuse
Is more likely to get a job as an adult
and for young girls, is less likely to become pregnant whilst a teenager.

These are huge social, education and economic benefits to the country.

James Heckman, economics Nobel Laurette in 2001 devised the Heckman equation in which he puts forward that the greatest societal return is to invest in the early years. Remember: This is not an early educator saying this, not an activist but a Nobel Prize winning economist.  This economic success is the basis for a reduction in poverty and inequality.
In the recent State of the Nation address you would have heard President Ramaphosa speak about the importance of ECD. 

Child demographics in South Africa

The South African population is 58 million. About 7 million are under the age of 6 years.  Of these about 2 million are in an ECD centre, programme or in Grade R (29%).
The majority of children live in urban communities.

These children are in 32,000 ECD centres of varying quality.

They are cared for and educated by 90 to 100,000 women who have created these 90 to 100,000 jobs at no cost to government.

Early childhood development progress since 1994

Since April 1994, when the first democratic election was held in South Africa, a number of initiatives affecting the lives of young children have taken place. Most significant amongst these have been:
  • The ratification by the South African government of the UNCRC in 1995.
  • Free medical and health care for pregnant women and for children aged birth to six years.
  • The establishment of a Directorate for ECD and Lower Primary Education within the DoE in 1995.
  • The establishment of a Chief Directorate for ECD in the national DSD in February 2015.
  • The development and approval of Education White Paper 5 on ECD in 2001 with the introduction of Grade R for children aged five turning six years, in 2001.
  • The nine provincial Departments of Social Development making ECD subsidies available for eligible ECD centres.
  • The nine provincial Departments of Education making grants-in-aid for Grade R classes.
  • The Children’s Amendment Act, No. 41 of 2007, with two chapters that deal with partial care facilities and ECD programmes, was passed by Parliament.
  • Cabinet approval of the National Integrated ECD policy in December 2015.
  • This year just over 12 million children are receiving social assistance through the Child Support Grant.
A brief picture of ECD in South Africa

When looking at the nature and extent of ECD provisioning, programmes and resources across the country, the following emerges:
  • There are some 32,000 ECD facilities across the country;
  • 2 million children were enrolled in these centres;
  • The gender split was even between boys and girls;
  • Provision is skewed towards urban children whose parents are employed;
  • Fewer than 1% of children with a disability are in an ECD;
  • The teacher-child ratio is about 1:20 nationally;
  • 90 to 100,000 teachers with 99.9% female and fewer than .01% male;
  • Most ECD centres are in urban areas, many in wood and iron structures; 
  • Just over half of all ECD facilities have mains electricity, flushing toilets and piped water;
  • Just on 10% of ECD centres have neither mains electricity, flushing toilets nor piped water;
  • Fewer than half of the 32,000 ECD centres are registered and compliant to operate;
  • Fees paid by parents is the major source of income for ECD centres;
  • About one quarter of adults working with young children will have no training at all and less than 10% have a Department of Basic Education recognised qualification;
  • The overwhelming majority of ECD teachers earn less than the national minimum wage of R 3,500 per month.
Challenges facing the ECD sector

Notwithstanding the progress made in early childhood development and in Grade R provision since 1994, children in South Africa still face significant challenges, especially around infrastructure, nutrition, ECD programmes, ECD teacher development and funding.


Infrastructure in ECD is a particular problem in the South African context. Many ECD facilities function without basic infrastructure, such as running water, access to electricity or suitable sanitation. About 10% of ECD centres in South Africa have none of these basic infrastructure requirements.  Infrastructure in community-based facilities is of a poor standard with a significant number of buildings in a bad or very bad condition.

Poor infrastructure at ECD facilities not only presents significant health and safety risks to children attending these facilities; unsafe and an impoverished learning environments are associated with substandard ECD.


For young children hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity are significant challenges.  The absence of adequate nutrition greatly affects a child’s early development.  The physical effects of inadequate nutrition are severe. Malnourishment can cause direct and irreversible structural damage to the brain, impair motor development, cause significant developmental setbacks, affect cognitive development, impair exploratory behaviour, impair learning ability and educational achievement, and can have long-lasting impacts on their health (Duggan, Watkins & Walker, 2008; Victora et al., 2008).

In terms of learning, malnutrition and hunger greatly affect a child’s ability to concentrate, focus attention, and perform complex tasks (Wildeman & Mbebetho, 2005). Children who lack certain nutrients or those who suffer from general malnourishment, or are simply hungry, therefore, do not have the same readiness for learning as their healthy, well-nourished counterparts.

ECD Programmes

The ECD sector offers a number of ECD programme options to meet the needs of children and their caregivers. These programmes include the traditional centre-based ECD model of provision, playgroups and family outreach programmes.

Traditional ECD provision involves the common practice of ECD teachers providing care and education for a class of children, ranging from 0 to 6 years of age and is provided in various types of physical structures. These are provided at public schools (in the form of Grade R classes), and at community-based facilities (in pre-Grade R and Grade R classes). Community facilities are provided at home-based facilities where an ECD teacher converts a portion of her house to accommodate children, or it can be provided at centre-based facilities where a community has a purpose-built building for the children.

Family outreach workers work with a number of families in a community and visit each family each week or month, depending on the nature of the programme. During a home visit, the family outreach worker works directly with the caregiver by sharing knowledge on how to provide early learning stimulation and on various other important topics such health, safety and nutrition. The family outreach worker also works directly with the children in their homes; demonstrating to the caregiver the various activities that can be done at home, and providing the children with a foundation for their early learning. These programmes empower parents and primary caregivers to provide early learning opportunities to their own children (Atmore, van Niekerk and Ashley-Cooper, 2012).

With playgroups, a fieldworker works with a group of parents and children on early learning activities on a session basis in a local park, in a residential home or at a community hall. The activities focus mainly on the education activities that parents can do in the home with their children.

ECD teacher development

Quality teaching and learning is essential for effective early development to take place.  A good teacher can provide a learning environment in which a child can develop optimally and in a holistic manner. To produce quality ECD teachers, various training and education opportunities are made available through full ECD qualifications, as well as through short skills programmes. 

In a study assessing the quality of ECD services in the Western Cape, researchers found that qualification level was not always associated with higher quality outcomes, such as quality of care and learning (Human Sciences Research Council, 2009). They also found that only 35% of teachers responsible for infant and toddler groups had an ECD qualification, and only 47% of teachers responsible for older children had an ECD qualification.


The greater portion of ECD centre funding nation-wide is derived from parent fees. Government funding for ECD comes mainly from the Department of Social Development and the department of Education in the provinces. The Department of Social Development in each province provides funding through a subsidy for registered ECD facilities, calculated at R16 per child per day (but varying by province) for 264 days of the year, for those children from birth to 4 years of age. Only those children whose parent or caregiver’s income falls below R 3,800 (single parent working) and R 7,600 (both parents working), qualify for the subsidy. This means that only those ECD facilities that cater to the poorest of families benefit from this subsidy. In contrast, a prisoner in any prison in South Africa is financed to an amount of just under R 400 per prisoner per day for every day of the year.

Some provincial Departments of Social Development also provide funding for ECD through programme funding for NPOs for various ECD programmes. These programmes are usually non-centre based models of ECD provisioning, such as family outreach programmes, toy libraries, home visiting programmes and informal playgroups.
The Department of Education provides funding to Grade R programmes. 

The ECD budget as a percentage of total education expenditure is still less than 2%.

Government ECD policy priority

The main ECD policy priority is the establishment of a preschool reception year (Grade R) for children aged five years in a phased, poverty-targeted approach. This was intended to be provided as a public good, first by 2010, when all children attending Grade 1 would have participated in a Grade R programme, postponed to 2014 and then again sifted to 2019. 

That target has not yet been reached and we still have some 300,000 children not in Grade R.

On 9 December 2015, the Cabinet approved the National Integrated ECD Policy. ECD is recorded as a universal right of children, a national priority and a public good to which all young children are equally entitled.

In line with the Constitutional provision that all children have basic rights, the policy committed to a comprehensive package of ECD programmes covering: 
    • free birth certification for children born in South Africa; 
    • basic health care and nutrition for pregnant women and young children; 
    • support for parents, including income support through the Child Support Grant, nutritional support, psychosocial support and support for the early education and learning opportunities of children from birth; and 
    • inclusion and support for children with disabilities within all ECD programmes. 
    • Government will provide sufficient funds to ensure universal access, especially for low-income families (Republic of South Africa, 2015: 95). Today, just less than four years later, this has not happened.

The Imam Abdullah Haron Education Trust support for vulnerable young children in South Africa

The Imam Abdullah Haron Education Trust supports three ECD NPOs: Grassroots Educare Trust, the Foundation for Community Work and Centre for Early Childhood Development to provide family outreach, parenting support and playgroups.

Family outreach programmes promote the provision of ECD within a home. Family outreach workers (also referred to as Family or Community Motivators) work with a number of families in a community and visit each family for a set amount of time each week or month (depending on the nature of the specific programme). 

During a home visit, the family outreach worker works directly with the caregiver sharing knowledge on how to enhance early learning stimulation and provides information on various other important topics such health, safety and nutrition. The family outreach worker also works directly with the children in their homes; demonstrating to the caregiver the various activities that can be done at home to stimulate early learning, and providing the children with a foundation for their early development. These programmes enable parents and primary caregivers to provide early learning opportunities to their own children.

Playgroups provide ECD within a community setting or informal gathering. A fieldworker works with a group of caregivers and children on early learning activities on a session basis in a local park, in a residential home, at a community hall or clinic or around a tap in the community - anywhere where parents and caregivers gather. The sessions focus mainly on the education activities that the parents can do in the home with their children. 

These groups allow for information sharing between the primary caregivers and provides an opportunity for supporting them, as well as allowing the parents/caregivers to support one another. These programmes also allow for groups of children, who usually do not interact with many other children, to interact in large groups, on shared activities.

These project components can be provided independently but they are far more effective when combined as an integrated package in a holistic manner.

Playgroups meet the need to provide for the estimated 70% of vulnerable young children who are not in any form of ECD programme. Supported by the Education Trust, Grassroots Educare Trust has worked with 22 playgroup leaders, with 440 children and 880 parents benefitting directly from Belhar Extension 13, Stompneus Bay, Saldanha Bay, and Veldrift.

Supported by the Education Trust, the Centre for Early Childhood Development has provided parenting support in Barcelona, Gugulethu and Phillipi to 250 families and 1,000 children. Outreach workers provide support on child rearing, nutrition supplementation, getting birth registration documents, caregiver advice on early learning, Child Support Grant applications and so on.

The Education Trust has supported the Foundation for Community Work, Family in Focus programme in the Langa, Valhalla Park and Bonteheuwel communities. 84 home visitors have been employed and worked on this programme and 2,940 children between the ages of 0 – 6 years were reached. 

Collectively, The Imam Abdullah Haron Education Trust has supported 22 playgroup leaders, 86 home visitors, some 1,200 families and 4,400 vulnerable young children.

So what is needed now?

I want to suggest four actions that must be taken.

First, and most important, the major ECD challenge is the lack of political will by the South African government to implement approved government ECD policy. If ECD is not a political priority with a political champion, it will not be adequately funded and implemented.  

To quote Mark Heywood, previous Director of Section 27, “Political leadership is partial, inconsistent and insufficient.” The action needed is that government must acquire the political will to meet the needs of vulnerable young children.

Peter Poit, commenting on HIV and AIDS programmes said: “Until something is a political priority, lives don’t get saved”. In our ECD context, until ECD is a political priority, it will not be provided for in South Africa.

A public statement and commitment by the President of the country that ECD is important and that government will move immediately to implement the full ECD policy is needed – anything less will render this policy “symbolic.”

A second challenge is the lack of leadership and management expertise and skills within implementing national and provincial government departments, mainly DSD and DBE. From the evidence of the past 25 years, neither the Department of Education nor the Department of Social Development has this capacity as can be seen by the paucity of successful large-scale development projects.  

Other than the CSG and Grade R to a lesser degree, there has been no other successful large-scale roll out of ECD policy. The various departments are failing to provide ECD programmes to young children. The action needed is the rapid upskilling of government officials to implement ECD policy.

The third challenge is: for ECD policy to be effective, sufficient funding is needed for policy implementation to ensure that ECD programmes as envisaged in the policy are universally available to young children who need it. The action needed is that through the National Treasury, government must make sufficient funding available to meet the commitments of the National Integrated ECD Policy. Anything less is unacceptable.

As Barney Mthombothi writes: “Policy without a budget is nothing but a wish list.”

Fourth, for the policy to be implemented will require the NPO sector to be an integral part of implementation.  

As with the lack of government capacity, not all ECD NPOs have the leadership and management capacity or skills to deliver on the policy. The NPO sector is partially skilled, severely stretched and under-resourced leading to an inability to reach the numbers that are required and at good quality. 

ECD non-profit organisations have been and will continue to be at the frontline of ECD programme implementation, The action needed is that we must capacitate and enable the ECD non-profit sector to do its work.


There have been improvements in early childhood development in South Africa since the end of Apartheid.  

The number of children in Grade R has increased four-fold and quality has improved slightly.  Government expenditure on Grade R has increased since 2008/09. More children are now in ECD programmes than ever before mostly because of Grade R and because of community provision by entrepreneurial women. 

However, it is correct to say that much work is still needed, if we want to improve the quality of children’s lives in South Africa. Given the critical importance of early childhood development in combating poverty and inequality, ECD must be an immediate priority for the South African government.  Our youngest children deserve nothing less.

If we do not make children a priority, if politicians only kiss children at election time, then in the words of Oliver Tambo: “A nation which does not value its children does not deserve its future.”

We need to get what Professor Aslam Fataar called “a strong civil society voice” - mothers and fathers of vulnerable children on board.  In this, as the ECD sector  we have failed.

The lack of ECD programmes to children is a national crisis which we ignore at our peril.

Thank you to the Haron family and to the Trustees of the Imam Abdullah Haron Education Trust for the honour of speaking at this gathering. It now requires every one of us to go out and to live the Imam’s legacy. The Imam transcended political, religious and racial barriers. We all have to do the same. In September 2019, we do have “An Opportunity to put the Imam’s example to proper use, as ethical inspiration for what we do to build our country.” Imam Abdullah Haron has shown us the way.

We must be inspired by the late Imam to do more and better in early childhood development so that our children can thrive.

Professor Eric Atmore, Department of Social Development, University of Cape own and Director: Centre for Early Childhood Development.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus

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