Compiled & written by: Nokuzola Songo, Former NAG team member and current Impande supporter.
In early February 2021, President Ramaphosa announced an economic stimulus package to help stabilise the economy and prevent further job losses from the Covid19 pandemic. This resulted in the launch of the ECD stimulus fund in early February that closed a couple of weeks ago.
The work of community service can be draining, it’s the type of work in which if you stop paddling you sink. I have seen what it has done to my colleagues: In a single breath, it has consumed yet also energized them. At times it feels like a rat race, as if you were chasing your own tail hoping to catch a glimpse of the finish line. But there is no finish line, there is just infinite need, more desperate situations lurking around the corner and more of not only your services but yourself that you give to the process. The work that came with the stimulus package intensified these internal dichotomies, excitement coexisted with exhaustion and boundaries between work life and home life were blurred by the sheer magnitude of the task at hand.
Now and then in the work of community service, lifelines are thrown at you and they fulfil their purpose of giving you a boost in the right direction, but they are not without their trade-off. A chasm can be observed between intention and execution of national interventions such as in the project of the Early Childhood Development (ECD) stimulus and local implementation. As a lifeline, the ECD stimulus is one that will provide significant yet temporary relief to a community that arguably provides some of the most essential services in the county; yet a community that has not been the centre of public discourse. The ECD problem is one that precedes COVID-19 and one that warrants intervention that is committed beyond this global health crisis. In my first few months working with Impande in 2014, when my boss realised how useless I was with office work, I was assigned to do fieldwork. This consisted of me painstakingly going from village to village throughout Ugu Districts identifying ECD centres. This was a job that relied greatly not only on my ability to drive or unpack bureaucracy but a desire for adventure, to connect with people, listen to their struggles and make sure that they were no longer invisible.
This struck a chord with me because, when I was growing up with my grandmother who was my primary caregiver at the time, she also ran an ECD centre out of the church. This was the early 1990s, yet, when I was doing this work 20 years later, it felt like nothing had changed. The women in the ECD centres resembled my grandmother, they had battle scars from taking children in daily for decades, a significant number of them limped or shuffled about, changing diapers, teaching songs and trying to jump around with children.
Many of the testimonies of their work presented similar recurring themes: Doing this so that the parents could look for work in a declining economy and so that children would be safe from accidents and lurking predators. Many of the ECD practitioners had been dipping into their own limited resources at home to feed children that seemed malnourished or that did not bring lunch at the ECD centres they ran. This was not unlike my own grandmother who, two decades ago, dipped into her pension money to make sure that all children had food in their bellies before she went about her daily responsibilities of not only keeping us safe but teaching us songs I can still recite today.
While tracking ECD centres throughout Ugu District, there were themes that I could see as I visited sites, such as being under-resourced or understaffed. I routinely captured some data that would be shared with the Department of Social Development (DSD) and invited the new sites to join the Impande network so that they would be in the loop with registration protocols leading on a track to funding if they met the requirements. In the 7 years since, the district has doubled the amount of registered and funded ECD centres and the few known unregistered centers are themselves in developmental phases, yet they remain on the radar.
ECD tracking was essential groundwork that was expanded by my colleagues in other Districts and was eventually executed on a national scale through the Vangasali campaign by National DSD and the Nelson Mandela Foundation. This process included collating a national database of registered and unregistered ECD services to bring new toolkits and approaches for local DSD offices. The ultimate goal was to connect with unregistered services and get them into the registration net, just like we started all those years ago in Ugu. The use of the Vangasali database came sooner than imagined, the announcement of the stimulus package made it central in this Covid-19 relief measure.
At the grassroots the application process for the stimulus was a major project and giving ECD practitioners information about the application was not enough. An overwhelming majority of them needed help for numerous reasons and in varying stages of the application process. Impande’s WhatsApp helpline gained traction and my colleagues were on the phone day and night. Essentially, the lines between work and home life blurred for the duration of the application process. The applicants needed support for a myriad of reasons, which ranged from needing help and advice on opening specific bank accounts and email addresses for the applicant verification process to filling in the actual application form. Since it was an online application process, the Impande team had to be hands-on from beginning to end for many applications because applicants did not have access to the internet/data, did not have computers or compatible phones for the online form, and even if they came to the office to do the application, they did not have the computer/internet literacy skills required to complete the form. To mitigate some of these challenges, the Impande team had a staff unit dedicated to travelling and helping applicants successfully complete the application process.
There is no doubt that the Vangasali project and the stimulus package has set in motion something that has been necessary for decades, adding unregistered ECD sites on a massive scale into the government database and rendering them less invisible, work that Impande and partner organisations have been advocating for tirelessly. However, it is still clear that this monumental move is still a drop in the ocean. While the question is not whether other organisations work to highlight ECD services in South Africa and work to connect them to opportunities, the issue is whether there are enough and how resilient they are.
One has to wonder about the centres that have not yet been identified, or that are barely making it, centres that without which children not only face imminent danger but are not given a fair and stimulating start in life. While this process was a leap, there is no end in sight, poverty and disenfranchisement seem to be cyclical and so, again, if we stop paddling we sink. While the ECD and child-rights advocacy community can now take a breath, we must remember that there is an entire generation at stake, one that deserves to no longer only worry about food security, but one that should be given the means to be internet literate and have access to opportunities beyond mere survival, so that we do not look back 20 years from now and feel, once again, like nothing has changed.