‘There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children‘: Nelson Mandela
The latest national Budget, generally lauded by business, did nothing to halt the ongoing shedding of jobs or the fact that more and more families are being thrown into abject poverty. The situation has also probably worsened over the latest period of level six load shedding, a fact that should be revealed in the Quarterly Labour Force Survey scheduled for publication on May 16.
And it is the poor, both working and unemployed, who will pay the price of the budgetary crumbs thrown to the better off and who will bear the brunt of current joblessness and future job shedding. This means the inequality gulf will grow ever larger.
It is already estimated that perhaps 15 million South Africans live below the food poverty line. Among them are millions of children who will bear the long-term consequences, growing into adulthood with their potential, physically, intellectually and emotionally stunted.
These are the workers of the future and what is happening to them is seriously harmful. Yet the individual human cost is only one horrendous outcome: there is plentiful evidence of the damage that will almost certainly be wrought in social, economic and, often, political terms.
If and when the current energy crisis is overcome and if progress is to be made, there will be a desperate need for capable and confident workers able to think critically. It is this potential that is now being wasted, distorted and destroyed. As the great abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass once remarked: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
Nelson Mandela clearly agreed with Douglass. When he launched his Children’s Fund in 1995 he pointed out: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” He also noted: “As we set about building a new South Africa, one of our highest priorities must therefore be our children.”
Small wonder then that the embattled early childhood development (ECD) community of the early 1990s thought that things might change after decades of bitter struggles dating especially from the group areas and Bantu education laws of 1950 and 1953. Instead, if anything, the situation has got worse, in many cases, much worse.
Corruption, incompetence and the apparent simple disregard for the children of the working class, has seen billons of rands in government funds earmarked for ECD unspent and returned to treasury. Against this background, the Budget effectively cut spending on childcare, education and poverty relief.
The paltry R350 Social Relief of Distress grant has not only not been increased, the funding for it has been cut, allowing for perhaps 2million fewer recipients. It will also, after one more year, apparently be phased out.
Although the child grant has been increased from R480 to R510 a month, this is well below the level of food price inflation. As child rights campaigner Professor Eric Atmore points out, this increase “will produce maybe two extra slices of bread a day”. The foster care grant was increased by 5.6% to R1,130 at a time when food price inflation breached 13%.
Yet , in the absence of jobs, let alone decent pay, the poor have to rely on grants in order merely to survive. These social grants, along with the R5.5bn allocation over three years for early childhood development (ECD), are clearly inadequate. And they were announced at the same time that the revenue service, while retaining corporate tax rate at 28%, admitted to having collected, from taxes, R94bn more than expected.
The ECD allocation also makes a mockery of the continued insistence by government that provision for preschool children has been prioritised. This is obvious when the allocation in the Budget is assessed against the latest World Bank ECD report. It was jointly initiated last year by South Africa’s basic education department and the national treasury and correctly notes that ECD “is one of the most powerful levers to unlock the future potential of the country”.
But the current Budget allocation for ECD, is R36.5bn less than the R42bn minimum. recommended by the World Bank report which also points out: “A substantial increase in funding for the ECD system is inevitable if the government’s priorities of reduced malnutrition and improved early learning are to be achieved.”
Given that the rate of stunting among children under age five in South Africa is double that for other similarly ranked countries, the failure on the nutrition front alone is obvious. To which has to be added the finding that more than 80% of Grade four learners cannot read for meaning, underlining the lack of a sound educational foundation.
Failure to act now will mean continuing to distort and destroy much of the country’s human potential. Here, government should perhaps heed a lessons that Eskom should have learned. To paraphrase Frederick Douglass: It is easier to maintain new power stations than to repair those that are broken.