Nelson Mandela Foundation

Over a rickety ramp and past prefabricated walls, we are greeted by eager eyes. Two small makeshift structures house the 45 children who attend this early childhood development (ECD) centre in Duncan Village in the Eastern Cape.

This is one of several unregistered centres the Nelson Mandela Foundation recently visited in East London.

Seeing children squeezed like sardines into a tiny structure was not a unique experience; it mirrored other centres in other townships and informal settlements.

These centres are a far cry from those found in more affluent neighbourhoods.

“Intergenerational poverty” and the “cycle of poverty” are common phrases in poverty and inequality discourse, but they come to life when one sees these centres. One cannot help but think: What chance of a prosperous life do these children have when the odds are stacked against them like this?

The Foundation has been visiting early childhood development centres and meeting organisations since it adopted ECD as a focus area earlier this year. This arose from the Foundation’s involvement in a think-tank initiative on poverty and inequality called the Mandela Initiative. The Mandela Initiative report highlighted the need to focus on the development of young children to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

Early childhood development is much more than the early childhood development centres, commonly called preschools.

It encompasses the full process of the development of a child from birth to school-going age with respect to their emotional, cognitive, sensory, spiritual, moral, physical, social and communicative development. Some even define early childhood development to include the period during which the child is in the mother’s womb because the mother’s health has a direct bearing on the child’s development.

The provision of early childhood development helps to create conditions in which the future life prospects of a child are not hindered by the income poverty of their parents. Investing in young children this way helps to redress the inequality imbalance for children born into poor families.

This is critical because about 1.8-million children under the age of six live in households with adults who are not employed. Research corroborates this assertion: the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) project — a European longitudinal study that collected information about 3 000 children — found that preschool is particularly beneficial to children who are disadvantaged. Although it cannot eliminate disadvantage, it can help to reduce social disadvantage and provide a better start at school.

Investing in early childhood development is also cost-effective. According to the Nurturing Care ECD framework — developed by Unicef, the World Bank Group and the World Health Organisation, among others — every $1 spent on early childhood development interventions translates into a return on investment as high as $13.

In South Africa, children from poor families are less likely than children of wealthier families to participate in early learning programmes.

This means that, when they enter Grade 1, they are already disadvantaged. According to the South African Early Childhood Review (2017), more than a million children aged three to five years still do not have access to group learning programmes, and these children are primarily from the poorest quintiles.

Although the importance of early childhood development is recognised, many see it as a “soft” issue and do not recognise the urgency of prioritising this area as a way to achieve a more just and equitable society.

Although policy change is needed in the early childhood development sector in South Africa, the first step is a change in mindset. When one sees the conditions in which the children of poor families learn, it is clear that we do not value poor black children. Their lives and their future prospects are not valued in the way they should be.

Additionally, we also need to recognise the importance of the first few years of a child’s life. This is a period of rapid brain development, which is greater than at any other time of a person’s life. Moreover, not only do the early experiences of a child shape their lifelong learning, they also affect their physical and mental health.

Mandela said that a way in which society can measure its compassion is the extent to which it works for a better life and to secure a future for its children. By this standard, we are a society that lacks compassion if a child with a hungry mind and stomach does not move us to action.

Young children are a silent constituency, unable to protest and mobilise to achieve their rights. It is our responsibility to act in their best interests. Failure to do this means we are poisoning the prospects for our future.

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian.