Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

The Eastern Cape’s early childhood development (ECD) centres are caught between a rock and a hard place after the social development department admitted to delays in processing salary payments that have forced many centres across the province to close shop.

On the other hand, the provincial education department is cracking the whip on unregistered centres and has closed seven so far, a move that has resulted in 800 pupils being outside the doors of learning. That number is expected to rise.

The province has been plagued by years of poor service delivery and maladministration, with the auditor-general Kimi Makwetu announcing in June that the province was the worst in SA for irregular expenditure.

Makwetu said irregular expenditure stood at more than R7.2bn for the 2017/2018 financial year, adding that the province's cumulative irregular expenditure stood at R25.5bn.

Unemployment  and poverty

The Eastern Cape is also battling a high rate of unemployment  and poverty, with education seen as having the potential to eradicate the dehumanising scourge.

In May President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed his key ally and ANC provincial boss Oscar Mabuyane as premier, to drive his reform agenda and turn around the ailing, largely rural province.

The province  allocated more than R3bn to the social development department for the 2019/2020 financial year. However, the department admitted that glitches meant that payments could not be made timeously to nonprofit organisations (NPOs) running the ECD centres.

Business Day understands that this has resulted in a shutdown of the centres across the provinces as teachers/practitioners have not been paid their salaries for six months.

Of the department’s R3.02bn budget, R219m was put aside to implement ECD programmes.  

Ramaphosa mentioned during his state of the nation address in February that over 700,000 children accessed early childhood education in the previous financial year. He said the government wanted to establish a “firm foundation” for a comprehensive ECD programme that was an integral part of the SA education system.

“This year we will migrate responsibility for ECD centres from social development to basic education, and proceed with the process towards two years of compulsory ECD for all children before they enter Grade 1,” he said in his February speech.

In the Eastern Cape, however, provincial education spokesperson Vuyiseka Mboxela said they had closed seven centres so far, with the number of affected pupils “not above 800”.

The number is likely to rise as “we are closing all the unregistered schools within our province in protection of our children’s future”. The department has even established a task team to deal with the issue, she said.

Mboxela noted that all possible measures were put in place before “totally closing down all the schools”, which was a last resort. “We only close a school after the leadership of that school (has) not heeded the call by our government of respecting the South African Schools Act on registering a school. We have also established a task team which is meant to deal with this matter [in its] entirety.”

Yusuf Cassim, the DA shadow education MEC, said the closing down of the centres started in January. On Tuesday he sent written questions to education MEC Fundile Gade to “ascertain the extent of the problem as it affects our nursery schools in the  province”.

Gade denied they had closed centres in the province, saying: “I suspect [you are referring] to the ones that belong to the social development department. I don’t have a report about a closure of even one ECD centre.”

Mboxela said the department took a decision to close down the unregistered centres as they were “making it difficult for the department to account and trace every learner in school”, adding: “Our assertion is that in order to improve significantly and consistently, we must guard strongly the early childhood  development centres.”

Meanwhile, Lufefe Mkutu, spokesperson for social development MEC Siphokazi Mani-Lusithi, said they were “hard at work” rectifying what he described as “the regrettable delay of payments” of NPOs during the 2019/2020 fiscal year.

He claimed that 80% of NPOs had since been paid across the province. “The department does not pay practitioners individually but as NPOs and they manage salary payments on their own,” said Mkutu.

Some of the challenges that led to delays in payments pertained to the redoing of the master list of beneficiaries, he said, noting that this was being hastened to ensure a smooth flow of services.

Mkutu said Mani-Lusithi only took over from her predecessor in June and was fairly new to the portfolio. “We woke up with our boots on and there is no time to dilly-dally. What is important for us is to deliver services. The MEC is saying these centres are important and we won’t allow them to close down [forever],” he said.

“The department is currently in a process of digitising all the records to be on par with the information technology systems of this age and ensure the safekeeping of all documents and electronic payment methods going forward.”

The department said it was also looking at the advance payment for two quarters to its beneficiaries to minimise any future delays, and promised to give administrative and monitoring support to ensure value for money.

The bigger goal, said Mkutu, was to ensure a caring society for the development and protection of the poor and vulnerable, adding: “The NPO sector plays a vital role and serves as an extension of our hand in service delivery and therefore will continue being a major priority in the department.”

University of Free State’s Colwyn Martin, an expert in early childhood education, said ECD centres were seen as a way of enhancing and developing children's competency in becoming part of the schooling system.

“Closing down these centres and not paying the practitioners means the children will be disenfranchised,” said Martin.

“The intention of these centres was to provide access and opportunities to children across the racial and social class barriers.”