Government pushes Early Childhood Development centres and welfare organisations to the brink

by | Early Childhood Development

The country’s social welfare and Early Childhood Development sectors are teetering on a precipice. But, instead of throwing out a lifeline, government is pushing them over the edge. Neglect and bullying in the form of unpaid subsidies, reallocated budget, use of relief funding to force compliance rather than assistance, threats, and refusal to adhere to court orders could deliver the death blow for organisations dedicated to assisting South Africa’s most vulnerable.

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In her 30 July 2020 address to the National Assembly, Minister of Social Development Lindiwe Zulu highlighted how all parts of the Social Development Portfolio had partnered to mitigate the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on everyone, particularly the vulnerable. She lauded the “greater sector-wide coordination and collaborations” and how they are “inspiring our programmes’ agility and responsiveness”.

It’s a rosy picture, but unfortunately, one belied by the reality experienced by thousands of non-profit organisations (NPOs) on the ground. The Covid-19 crisis has driven social welfare NPOs (including those caring for abused, abandoned and neglected children, the disabled, recovering addicts and the elderly), and Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres to the point of closure.

While shocking, it isn’t surprising. The social portfolio model only works when all parties accept and complete their contracted responsibilities – key among which are social welfare tasks performed predominately by NPOs – and financial support is provided by the department. But although most NPOs have continued to deliver services during lockdown, the Department of Social Development (DSD) in many provinces has been invisible at best and obstructive at worst.

In other sectors, government has typically responded with bail-out packages and interim funding. Disturbingly, the exact opposite has happened in the social welfare and ECD sectors. Not only have additional funds not been forthcoming, but stories also abound about unpaid subsidies and government repurposing already budgeted funds. Even more troubling are plans for spending newly allocated funding.

Unpaid subsidies are nothing new for social welfare organisations. The first quarter of every financial year is routinely marred by at least one province that fails to pay subsidies. But Covid-19 has worsened an already ugly picture. The NPO sector was previously able to top up subsidies through fundraising, self-sufficiency projects like second-hand book shops, and in the case of ECDs, fees. The lockdown not only removed additional sources of revenue, but also increased expenses: including the cost of PPE and sanitiser, plus additional costs of food and electricity for residential care facilities because of the need for live-in options to keep staff and residents safe. Subsidies have never been more critical.

Nor should there have been any problems with subsidy payments at the beginning of this financial year. In a 15 August 2020 media statement, the department said that due to the timing of the State of National Disaster, “provincial departments were advised to extend the 2019 service level agreements with an additional 6 months to enable them to continue rendering much-needed services to mitigate the Covid-19 pandemic”.

However, according to a report compiled by Vetten and Grobbelaar, across multiple provinces, hundreds of NPOs designated as “essential” in terms of the regulations contained in Government Notice no. 318, published on 18 March 2020 are yet to get their first payment of the 2020/2021 financial year.

Child protection has been a huge casualty. The report states that 16 of the 19 Child Welfare affiliates in the Eastern Cape have been unable to pay staff salaries since April 2020. None had funds for operational costs other than staff costs.

Worst hit is the Eastern Cape. As of 17 July 2020, only two organisations had received their subsidies, which according to the department had been delayed because of the Covid-19 crisis. At least 103 organisations focusing on child protection, and care for the elderly, disabled, recovering addicts and children, are still awaiting their first-quarter subsidy payments (there are probably more, but fear of reprisal made many unwilling to be named).

Child protection has been a huge casualty. The report states that 16 of the 19 Child Welfare affiliates in the Eastern Cape have been unable to pay staff salaries since April 2020. None had funds for operational costs other than staff costs.  ACVV has 11 branches providing child protection services in the Eastern Cape. By 24 June 2020, eight of those branches were relying on loans to pay their salaries and running costs, and three were using their reserves.

These organisations provide services to some of the country’s most vulnerable, but now staff are reliant on food parcels and many have lost their medical aid and pensions, phone lines have been cut off, there is no transport money for staff to get to work, utilities have been disconnected, and some face eviction because they cannot pay their rent. Social workers are unable to complete essential home visits to access and remove at-risk children.

One auxiliary social worker described the overwhelming anxiety of trying to provide a professional service and remain emotionally strong for clients, while managing the gnawing fear that he may not be able to provide for his pregnant wife and unborn child. Another told of the heartache of delivering food parcels to clients while knowing that her own children were starving. Some have fallen ill from stress or begun to experience panic attacks.

Many residential homes for children and the elderly are surviving through desperate pleas for funds on social media.

Equally troubling are the provinces that unilaterally held back a portion of the subsidy because “the organisations were not at work” during lockdown.  Vetten and Grobbelaar argue that not only are the deductions seemingly arbitrary, but they may even be unconstitutional given that the service level agreements (SLAs) between the NPOs and the DSD had been signed, and payment was already due. In addition, the DSD issued no directives to the organisations about what work outputs were required during lockdown Levels 5 and 4. Nor did they enquire about what NPOs had done during April and May 2020.

Nonetheless, many welfare organisations in Limpopo, Mpumalanga and the North West received between 15 and 65% less than the amount documented in the SLA they signed, and to add to their misery, some in Limpopo were also instructed to use existing funds for PPE.

It’s become a common pattern. The ECD sector, decimated by months of lockdown where caregivers were unable or unwilling to pay fees, has also been subject to indiscriminate decisions about subsidies and PPE provision.

“There is evidence of the ECD subsidy being reduced, sometimes to half. Some ECD centres have had subsidies taken away or been threatened with this, and there is also evidence of subsidies not being paid.’

In her 11 May 2020 speech, Zulu confirmed directives gazetted on 9 May stating that the DSD would “continue paying subsidies in order to fulfil their administrative responsibilities and payment of stipends”. The announcement, which came a month after the first payment of the new financial year was due (subsidies are paid quarterly in January, April, July and October), was celebrated. Although the subsidy is only R17 per child per day, for 264 days per year (less than R4,500 per child per year), and only paid to 700,000 children, the organisations receiving those subsidies cater for some of the country’s poorest children.

However, in eight of the nine provinces, the DSD failed to pay the subsidies in full or in part, often citing that children were not at school during lockdown (this despite costs being ongoing). According to Professor Eric Atmore from the Centre for Early Childhood Development: “There is evidence of the ECD subsidy being reduced, sometimes to half. Some ECD centres have had subsidies taken away or been threatened with this, and there is also evidence of subsidies not being paid.”

It has prompted the ECD sector to return to court, a case which despite the state attorney’s cynical attempts to delay court proceedings will be heard in the Pretoria High Court before the end of August 2020.

According to an affidavit included in the upcoming SA Childcare and others v Minister of Social Development and others case, in the impoverished Sarah Baartman district in the Eastern Cape, which recorded a 27% stunting rate in children prior to lockdown, subsidies have not been paid since January 2020.

The affidavit outlines in heartbreaking detail the community leaders’ fears that while ECDs are closed, children are unsafe and unable to access food, and how in the absence of funds, ECD practitioners urgently need food parcels. Like the subsidies, these were promised, but didn’t materialise.

At a meeting held with the provincial DSD in mid-May 2020, 321 ECD centres were told that the department would belatedly begin processing April subsidies, but that they would only receive a portion. The subsidy is divided into three parts: nutrition, stimulation and administration. Despite SLAs, and ECD plans to continue feeding children and provide workpacks over lockdown, the DSD indicated that it would only pay the administrative portion of the subsidy (one third, just over R5 per child per day) “due to the closure of ECD centres as a result of Covid-19” and because, it stated, families must provide for their own nutritional needs.

However, even this was never paid. The affidavit outlines in heartbreaking detail the community leaders’ fears that while ECDs are closed, children are unsafe and unable to access food, and how in the absence of funds, ECD practitioners urgently need food parcels. Like the subsidies, these were promised, but didn’t materialise.

A further affidavit explains how in Soshanguve in Gauteng, 200 ECD centres serving approximately 15,000 children were told (like Baby Homes and Child and Youth Care Centres in the province), that they had to produce a new health certificate if they wanted to obtain the signed SLA necessary to get their subsidy. Not only do health certificates take 10-16 months to process, but centres would also need to acquire consent use for their sites, rights which can cost up to R100,000. How this is manageable, especially in a pandemic, is anyone’s guess. Despite the directive that SLAs should be extended, subsidies will not be paid again until SLAs can be signed, which will not happen unless the department abandons its insistence on a new health certificate.

One ECD practitioner from the area, Lorato, describes their struggle:

This has affected us so badly. This is our only income. There are 18 of us working here. We have children and other family members living with us. Some of the practitioners have three, four, five kids. One has a disabled child who needs to go to the clinic and to special appointments. We don’t get food parcels. We don’t get grants. Our children get sick and we have no money to take them to the clinic or to buy medicines. My house is dark. We can’t buy electricity. My children are crying day and night because they have empty stomachs. This is difficult, so difficult. I go door to door knocking for food for my child. Food is so expensive. I can’t look my child in the eye. Imagine waking up to a child complaining of an empty stomach. Our principal says we will probably have to close. She doesn’t have enough for even one whole salary. If the preschool closes, we won’t be able to survive. It’s not right that we have to close because someone isn’t doing their job.

She isn’t alone, while researching this article, my Inbox was flooded with stories of ECD centres closing after 15 or 20 years, of principals with assets selling their houses and cars to pay for retrenchment packages for their staff, others not being able to pay school fees because they were trying to pay their staff, and many business owners and ECD practitioners, like Lorato, who despite having jobs had become dependent on food parcels or the kindness of strangers to feed their children.

In Estcourt, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), subsidies haven’t been paid since March 2020. ECD centres were informed in a provincial circular at the beginning of June that subsidies would be paid by 26 June 2020, and that they were required to use the nutrition portion of the subsidies for PPE and cleaning equipment so they could reopen. However, to date, no subsidies have been received.

All ECD centres involved asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. But NPOs assisting them reported that DSD officials are closing ECD centres that are fully compliant with Covid-19 protocols.

And alarmingly, non-payment of subsidies isn’t the only problem ECD centres in KZN are facing. Following the High Court ruling on 6 July 2020 stating that ECD centres could reopen provided they were able to comply with Covid-19 health regulations, and confirmatory DSD regulations issued on 10 July 2020, many centres that were ready to resume were told by the provincial DSD that they could not reopen until the president had “announced a date”.

All ECD centres involved asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. But NPOs assisting them reported that DSD officials are closing ECD centres that are fully compliant with Covid-19 protocols. It’s happening throughout the province, but particularly in the rural areas of uThukela, Amajuba and Ethekwini where children attending the centres are extremely vulnerable and reliant on them for food, and protection. Some officials are warning that they will tear up NPO and Partial Care certificates if the centres remain open, and that owners will be held personally liable if a child dies from Covid-19. Several business owners and practitioners have even been threatened with jail time.

Intimidation from DSD officials is not a localised phenomenon. But many ECD centres cannot reopen anyway because they are unable to afford the PPE and cleaning equipment necessary to be safe and Covid-19-compliant.  The Minister of Finance announced that R64.5-million would be allocated for sector PPE. But, in a move that mirrored the Basic Education debacle, this money is a reallocation of money intended for essential ECD infrastructural upgrades. Worse still, the only province where there has been evidence of the department planning to provide said PPE is the Western Cape.

In his affidavit, the Convenor of the Committee for NPOs for the Sarah Baartman District in the Eastern Cape explained how he asked district officials if the department would help ECD centres with PPE. He was told that the department was busy with procurement and had only considered three or four sectors so far, but that ECD would be “the last sector”. He confirmed that there was mention of provision of R4,000 for PPE and water tanks at a provincial meeting, but when he asked for details, he was told that there was no date available and that there was no guideline on how long it would take. Having waited four months for any communication about receiving food, he couldn’t help wondering how long they would wait for PPE.

In an informal survey, ECD centres in eight of the nine provinces routinely answered “no” to the question: “Has your ECD centre received financial assistance from the DSD for PPE?”  So, where has the money gone?  And if it is yet to be distributed, why is it taking so long?

What made an already distressing situation even worse was a 30 July 2020 announcement from Zulu revealing that R1.3-billion was being made available to the sector. It should have been a joyous occasion. The money could have been allocated to save over 175,000 jobs in more than 30,000 ECD centres. Although often informal, these are sustainable long-term jobs mostly pioneered by women entrepreneurs at community level.

It has placed the sector in an invidious position. It’s legally permitted to restart services which would result in a resumption of fees. But instead of helping to get centres reopened, the department has withheld subsidies and in cases, threatened ECD centres with fines, closure or permanent withdrawal of subsidies if they reopen without DSD approval (which is not required in the court judgement). Moreover, much of the sector cannot afford the requisite PPE needed to keep children and staff safe, and DSD allocated funding is yet to materialise. The upshot is that ECD centres are closing every day, and many will never reopen.

What made an already distressing situation even worse was a 30 July 2020 announcement from Zulu revealing that R1.3-billion was being made available to the sector. It should have been a joyous occasion. The money could have been allocated to save over 175,000 jobs in more than 30,000 ECD centres. Although often informal, these are sustainable long-term jobs mostly pioneered by women entrepreneurs at community level.  Government intervention could have ensured that Covid-19-related unemployment slowed. According to the recent NIDS-CRAM study, 3 million people had already lost their jobs by end April 2020, of whom 2 million were women. It could also have safeguarded the millions of children being educated, fed and protected by ECD centres.

But none of the money has been allocated to saving the sector. Instead, the department has earmarked it for the short-term employment of 36,000 youth workers to police sector compliance. While youth job creation is essential for the economy, it seems incomprehensible to allocate this money for the temporary employment of young people for monitoring and evaluation, rather than using it to save the DSD’s flagship project for changing the destiny of vulnerable children. It’s also short-sighted. It isn’t an overstatement to say that without urgent intervention, there will be no ECD sector left for these youth workers to police.

The ECD work stream of the Covid-19 People’s Coalition wrote to the Minister on 7 August 2020 asking for a meeting to discuss the allocation of funds and then sent a follow up on 13 August. But despite the requests, thousands of individual emails sent by the ECD workforce, and 10,000 people signing a petition asking for the funds to be used to save the sector, she is yet to respond.

The Minister is also yet to acknowledge her department’s non-performance.  The 15 August DSD media statement claimed that: “The first quarter tranches of the subsidies were paid to all deserving NPOs and the Department is completing transfers for the second quarter subsidies in the few provinces that are remaining whilst the majority of provinces have transferred their subsidies.” Unfortunately, this is untrue.

Nonetheless, it’s within the department’s power to save social welfare NPOs and ECD. To do so, it urgently needs to:

  • Recognise its failures over the lockdown.
  • Ensure that provinces extend 2019 SLAs so that subsidies can be paid across all provinces now.
  • Remove all pedantic and unreasonable requirements placed on organisations (like obtaining new health certificates and land usage permissions) so 2020 SLAs can be signed.
  • Discipline those employees threatening and intimidating service providers.
  • Publicly disclose the plan for rolling out PPE to all ECDs participating in the Vangasali campaign (including unregistered ones).
  • Reallocate the R1.3 billion to saving the sector, and the long-term protection of jobs for ECD practitioners, whose demographics include some of the country’s most marginalised.

All of which brings us to a devastating question, does the department want to save its social welfare NPOs and the ECD sector?  If it does, the window for acting becomes narrower every day. DM

First published in the Daily Maverick: 20.08.2020

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