The role of Parliament in building South Africa’s human capital foundations by increasing the number of children who develop to their full potential

15 November 2021

Parliament: A key role player in realising children’s rights 

UNICEF Representative, Ms Christine Muhigana
Chairperson of the NCOP, Hon Amos Masondo
Presenters and Guest speakers
Ladies and gentlemen

Good morning to you all.

This morning we convene on the online virtual platform to have a discussion that should be regarded as having the biggest bearing on the future of our country and society.

It is unfortunately, also one of those areas that have continued to receive inadequate attention and focus, at least when it comes to concrete efforts for implementation and impact.

As correctly captured in the spirit of our 2008 Memorandum of Understanding with UNICEF, the success of a proper and comprehensive early childhood development strategy, is the basis on which we build a better South Africa and a better future for all. This is particularly so because, in South Africa, not only are we dealing with the future consequences of not doing something about this now, but we are also helping to perpetuate a damaging legacy of the past from which we have come.

It was somewhere in the halls of the same Parliamentary precinct that we still occupy today, that in 1953, hardly five years after their rise to power, the Nationalist Party passed into law, the Bantu Education Bill. They did so, after been persuaded by the expressed views of then Minister of Native Affairs, HF Verwoerd, about the intent and purpose of passing such a law.

It was from a podium of the House of Parliament, that Verwoerd made his infamous 1953 speech, in which he declared:

"There is no place for [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour.... What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?"

For more than 40 years after this, our children were subjected to an education system that ensured that they have no meaningful role to play in the development of their own country and that they should forever remain tools of labour at the hands of the white Apartheid system.

The legacy of this action by Verwoerd’s government and Parliament, still impacts South Africa’s capacity for socio-economic advancement and development to this day.

The political regulation of basic education policy, although important for such outcomes, was not the only factor in this grand scheme to devalue the worth and potential of African children.

Verwoerd also knew that the conditions under which these children would grow, their quality of life, the stability of their homes, access to basic amenities, exposure to violence, will all affect their psychological make-up and define the character of adults they were to become.

Verwoerd’s Apartheid masterplan, which he went on to perfect after that, was not just about education, but about a comprehensive destruction of any possible positive childhood development for black children, with a view to undermine the role they can play in the development of their own country and people.

Many of you participating in this Webinar may remember that before the passing of the Bantu Education Act in 1953, the basic education of children in this country was not under the control of the state and the Minister. It has always been managed by the education providers including, in the main, the various religious missionaries from the West. This system did not discriminate about the quality and content of education provided to black children. This was evident in the kinds of black leaders and professionals produced in this pre-Bantu education era of no state control. It is exactly this preparation and equipping of the black child that Verwoerd wanted reversed.

As an acclaimed German trained Doctor of Applied Psychology, Verwoerd knew that the destruction of a people, must start with destroying the positive development and growth path of their children.

This is something that, at least at a policy level, the leaders of our democratic state have always understood and been determined to undo. This is from the appreciation that, the more we leave the current state of childhood development as it is, in our country, the further we advance Verwoerd’s plan and its legacy.

It for this reason that, while standing in this very Parliament where Verwoerd first established his destructive policy, current President Cyril Ramaphosa, emphatically described the need to reverse the legacy of Bantu Education on our children and society. In delivering his State of the Nation Address in 2018, the President stated correctly that,

“If we are to break the cycle of poverty, we need to educate the children of the poor.”

There is a clear correlation between the 40 years of deliberately depriving black children a qualitative childhood development, and the many challenges to our developmental path as a country.

According to the United States Centre for ECD, “(qualitative) early childhood development “provides the building blocks for educational achievement, economic productivity, responsible citizenship, lifelong health, strong communities, and successful parenting of the next generation.”

It is therefore important that, as policy makers, government departments, implementing agencies, private sector and community based organisations, we understand the importance of early childhood development and learn how to support our children, the families, communities and schools, in ensuring qualitative development of children during the earlier critical stages. This is not an issue that can only be limited to just education, but the overall growth and development of a child.

It remains of serious concern though, that the state of early childhood development education in our country is not yet at the level to deliver on some of the developmental imperatives we are talking about. For the majority of South African children, early childhood development remains informal, or limited to preparation to start school or even just to keep children occupied and safe while parents are at work.

We are encouraged by the policy initiatives that are clearly intended at redirecting the purpose of the early childhood education for the better. These however need to be practicalised, taking into consideration the extent of the damage that has to be addressed and the best approach to do this. A proper due diligence need to be done to ensure success in implementation and monitoring of results.

Both the National Development Plan and the National Integrated Early Childhood Development Policy call for a comprehensive approach to programmes for early childhood development. These must include proper regulation and setting of objectives. Clear attention should be given to issues such as curriculum, access, Quality and assessment, safety and access to basic services and facilities.

Parliament and, indeed all Members of Parliament (MPs) are essential actors in the promotion and protection of human rights, including the rights of children.

This is the imperative that informs our ongoing partnership with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) South Africa.

We believe that UNICEF’s extensive network covering more than 190 countries and territories, as well as its vast experience working for the protection, education and development of children, makes them the ideal partner from whom we can share experiences and benchmark best practices.

Now, more than ever, there is a need for an integrated and holistic approach to addressing challenges facing children, especially as many governments put in place the plans for reconstruction and economic recovery.

One of the roles that Parliament has decided to play as part of its oversight, is to ensure the proper monitoring of both the development and implementation of these plans. In the context of South Africa, we also want to ensure that vulnerable sectors of our society, including women and children, having borne the worst of the burden of Covid-19, are not excluded from these plans and resultant investment focus.

We also intend to utilize our presence in various international parliamentary forums to ensure that this important consideration is not only limited to South Africa, but the region and the world.
Chairperson and Colleagues,

We understand that whatever work we do in the agenda of the protection and development of children, their own voices should be heard. The current process of strengthening our Sector Parliaments, including the Children’s Parliament will assist in creating platforms for meaningful child participation in this regard. This will ensure that, when it comes to issues affecting them, children are not just passive recipients of solution, but become active agents, who are informed and able to influence decisions affecting their lives.

In conclusion,
Both Parliament and the UNICEF can help ensure that government’s policies and plans are supported to go into implementation, including resource mobilisation, and that they are monitored for impact and success. Much of the work already been done will be articulated by both the Department of Social Development and the Parliamentary Committees responsible for the oversight of the relevant departments, when they make their presentations later on.

As I have already indicated, this is too important an area of government to be allowed to fail or stagnate in any way.

I wish this webinar very fruitful and incisive discussions and that we will leave here stronger in our resolve for effectiveness than we have been at any other time.

I thank you