Crèches forgotten in promise of Covid relief funds
Government funding programme comes to an end, leaving several needy institutions stranded
It is a cold and quiet Monday morning on the streets of Heideveld, but but you are greeted with warmth, children’s cries, singing and dancing at the Little Footsteps Educare.
Teacher and owner Helen Diedericks mutes the sing-along on the TV and tells her little learners to sit down and prepare themselves for snack time. They jostle and shout. Some sit on the floor and a few run around before finally settling down.
Diedericks is one of many early childhood development (ECD) educators who has been left disappointed by the ECD Stimulus Relief Fund. The fund was launched by the national Department of Social Development (DSD) in February 2021 to cushion the impact of the Covid pandemic on early childhood development programmes.
The DSD received R496m to assist the centres, which were offered a maximum one-off payment of R4,186 per staff member.
But applying for funding proved to be a nightmare for some centres. The process had to be undertaken online through a government portal and the centres had to be part of the government’s central supplier database.
“I applied in 2021, a little after this initiative was announced,” said Diedericks. “I went through the nightmare of the application and verification process. It was so frustrating it had me in tears. But after much difficulty and back and forth I was ultimately verified before the end of 2021. After that all I did was wait, but nothing came.”
As 2021 went by, complaints about non payment of funds started. In May 2021, staff at ECD centres embarked on a three-day national protest over what they described as the “appalling and virtually non-existent roll out of the employment stimulus relief fund”.
Protests and complaints continued until 2022, even as early childhood development was switched from the DSD to the Department of Basic Education in April 2022.
Now the ECD Employment Stimulus Relief Fund project has closed.
Western Cape education department spokesperson Bronagh Hammond said after excluding duplicate applications and verification of sites, applications at 2,286 ECD sites in the province were considered.
“Of the 2,286 ECD sites, 2,149 sites (94%) have been paid. The project has now ended. It closed in March 2023,” Hammond said. “Some sites could not be paid due to unverified staff applications, and invalid banking details or closed accounts.”
Applicants had been contacted and an audit company appointed to undertake site visits as part of the verification process, she added.
But Diedericks, who operates from her home, with 15 learners aged between three months and five years, said she was never contacted after her application was verified.
“If we had got the funds it would have helped a lot, because I would’ve been able to pay salaries and buy some groceries for the crèche,” Diedericks said. “Now we depend solely on fees that sometimes the parents cannot afford. When I started this crèche in 2017, it wasn’t for gain; it was to service the community, which is why even if parents can’t pay school fees sometimes, I will never turn the child away.”
Another applicant, Boniswa Mxhakaza, principal of the Khanyisa Educare in Makhaza, Khayelitsha, said the last time she last dealt with the application process last year.
“Every time I would apply for myself or the staff, I would get a response wanting more information or saying there’s incorrect or outstanding information,” Mxhakaza said. “And each time I would go back and fix these problems. But here I am today — no communication about my application.”
Khanyisa Educare was established in 2005, and has 130 learners, aged one to six years.
The Centre for Early Childhood Development (CECD) said the rollout of the relief fund was “the perfect example of how the government should not administer emergency relief funds to the country’s most vulnerable”.
Yusrah Ehrenreich, advocacy and social justice manager at the CECD, said the national government was responsible for receiving, verifying and approving applications and approved applicants were paid by the provinces. Some provinces, such as the Western Cape, also ran their own verification process before making payments.
Ehrenreich said the national government had failed to pay all eligible ECD workers the promised relief funds.
“The reasons for non-payment given by government are weak, inadequate, and unacceptable,” Ehrenreich said. “We are shocked that blame is being shifted onto the ECD applicants, when it has always been clear that the reason thousands of ECD principals, managers, teachers, cooks and other staff haven’t been paid is because of a government application process that was fraught with complications and complex technical problems, and poor communication from DSD/DBE to the ECD sector. If their system did not allow applicants to apply effectively, that is the fault of DSD’s system, not of the applicants,” she added.
Ehrenreich said the relief fund was intended to alleviate the effects of the pandemic and national lockdowns on ECD centres and their workforce, but due to the government’s mishandling of the funds, most of the workers had not received any relief and the sector would take years to recover.
“ECD centres closed, staff left to find more sustainable employment, and children are left without quality care and education, while their caregivers struggle to put food on the table,” she added.
“Frankly, DSD, DBE and the government should be ashamed. The children of SA cannot afford to have the government fail them.”
GroundUp sent questions to the DBE on June 8 and followed up on June 9 and June 12, but no response has been received.
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