The formalisation of the Early Childhood Development sector is putting pressure on care facilities already working with the bare minimum.
"I think our problem especially with government ... [is that it is] more concerned [with] implementing the laws [rather] than checking the reality of what is going on [with Early Childhood Development centres in township]," says Georginah Hloka, 29, the principal of an Early Childhood Development (ECD) centre in Tembisa.
Government has implemented new laws to formalise Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres in South Africa, under which all ECD facilities must be registered with the provincial government. Owners need to make sure the children are kept in safe, hygienic environments with access to clean food and water. Trained staff must tend to children with disabilities or chronic illnesses who need appropriate access and care at the centre.
Though formalising the sector is good for accountability and oversight, for many ECD centre owners and practitioners, the financial implications to becoming part of the government's database of official centres are too great. But the tragic case of the nine-month-old baby who died last month at an ECD centre in Edleen, Kempton Park, shows these regulations are very necessary.
Thabiso Hlongwane, spokesperson for the office of the MEC of Gauteng's Department of Social Development, says the imposed regulation and registration is to help manage "non-compliance and mushrooming of unregistered ECDs" and to avoid "fatalities at partial-care facilities". He also adds that the "employment of unqualified ECD practitioners, the non-implementation of approved ECD programmes and the non-observation of safety and care of children" contributed to this situation.
Hloka is principal of New Hope, an ECD centre in Ehlanzeni, a suburb of Tembisa. It is run from a rented premise for which she pays R3 500 a month. In 2015, the centre registered for business with the Department of Social Development. At the time, Hloka was able to get nutritional assistance for her centre because of a letter which she received from a social worker after the centre had been inspected. "But now they have come up with this new law that you have to have a certificate," she says. "That is why everything stopped for now. I don't have any funding of any sort at the crèche."
Hlongwane says any person intending to establish an ECD centre has to contact the nearest municipal office to apply for a health certificate and a permit to operate. The operation and appointment of practitioners and staff within ECD services is guided by the Children's Act 38 of 2005, which, along with specific guidelines for health and safety on ECD centre premises, outline how centres must identify and manage children with disabilities. This means employing trained personnel who can offer appropriate learning activities, communication strategies and basic therapeutic interventions for such children. Hlongwane says that funding for subsidies for ECD centres is dependent on the availability of money.
Though the formalisation of the sector will help keep the most vulnerable members of society safe in regulated environments, ECD owners and practitioners feel the measures are not realistic. Hloka points out that her ECD centre runs on the absolute bare minimum, with nothing to spare for training or to pay qualified staff. Hloka charges R450 a month for baby classes, which cater to children aged from six months to three years, and R370 a month for her four- to six-year-olds. Her centre has a regular intake of 45 children. The money from the children's monthly fees goes to paying for food, rent, three practitioners and a person who prepares food. "It's simply not enough," says Hloka.
"I don't get paid," she adds. "The money doesn't allow me to get paid." She earns what is left after everyone on her staff is paid and all the necessary supplies are purchased for the centre.
Inaccessible norms and standards
Hloka recently attended the ECD open week hosted by the City of Ekurhuleni at the Alberton Civic Centre. At the Early Childhood Development Week, she found out that the Department of Employment and Labour has stipulated a required minimum wage for employees. The R2 000 a month Hloka pays her practitioners is in contravention of these laws. She also cannot afford to pay anyone overtime. Her ECD centre operates from 6am to 6pm, five days a week. "It's because that's when most of the parents are going to work ... and there's nobody to take care of the child," she says.
Hloka recalls that the principals at the open week raised their hands and voices in disapproval, telling government officials: "We cannot afford it because, firstly, you are not funding us. Secondly, our fees are very low. There's no way we can raise our fees higher than that [as parents will not be able] to afford the fees because some work in retail stores."
"Do you see we are struggling as ECD centres, especially the ones in the township," says Hloka, as she sits in her kitchen, which also serves as her workspace. The wall is adorned with many framed professional development workshop certificates, and the room has several piles of files and containers filled with food.
Her ECD centre is willing to accept any donations, she says, but it is a difficult ask in many contexts. "To teach, resources are never enough. We are short of so many things," she adds.
Some of the new requirements include assurance that the crèche building is safe and secure. This means that the building plans of the place where the ECD centre is housed must be taken to the municipality for approval. Hloka rents the space for the centre, which makes the requirements to the building's infrastructure impossible to implement. Because of this, she is in the process of moving to a new place, where she will be responsible for the costs of building once the plans have been approved. "That is the problem," she says. "The government is not giving us anything."
Helping to implement regulations
There has been rapid growth in the ECD sector, especially in shack settlements, because of the need for safe, affordable and accessible spaces for young children. Mildred Bopoto and Barbara Stemmert of the Ikamva Labantu Charitable Trust in the Western Cape explain that "there are educators we work with who deliver the most nurturing and stimulating programmes consistently. They are not perturbed by the lack of funding but driven by passion to care and support young children holistically."
Bopoto and Stemmert note that ECD registration works to align centres with the Department of Social Development's norms and standards, which, they say, "ensures a safe environment and practices that support the children's development".
But "we need to advocate for leniencies as the constant pull between the realities of township living and idealistic norms and standards are impacting the children negatively in their most formative years," they continue. "The unrealistic application [is] across a country where the great divide continues to exist between the haves and the have nots. The poor remain disadvantaged as their quality of life continues to be infringed upon.
"When subsidisation is not achieved, a continuous negative chain of events perpetually exists [with problems such as] overcrowding, high staff turnover, employment of staff not adequately skilled in early childhood development, children unable to access the nutritious meals required to grow healthy minds and bodies, [which] impacts their ability to learn."
In response to the challenges experienced by ECD practitioners in trying to register, Ikamva Labantu started an ECD centre registration help desk in September 2013. It currently reaches over 400 ECD educators. Stemmert and Bopoto explain: "The outcome of this programme is for principals to be capacitated and supported in achieving and maintaining compliance with the minimum standards for registration and subsidisation."
Ikamva Labantu says financial constraints restrict "correct" structures, and the required resources to be deemed structurally safe environments are enormous. "Our building plans project was established this year. This programme will provide building plans at a minimal cost, which is otherwise a very expensive requirement."