Think Future Reflections: Josephilda Nhlapo-Hlope

by | Dec 19, 2019 | Blog

I left Think Future almost a fanatic convert for ECD.

I attended Think Future 2 in October 2019 because my work demands evidence based policy making and utilizing innovative ideas to maximize impact of Rand spent. This particular Think Future event happened when government was finalizing plans for the next five years in what is called in government language “the medium term strategic framework” (the MTSF).

This 5 year planning and monitoring tool- the MTSF, is informed by the National Development Plan 2030, the electoral mandate as well as learnings from the 25-year review. So at Think Future 2, I was hoping to learn, share and form partnerships to help better implement The National Integrated Early Childhood Development Policy 2015 (ECD policy) approved by Cabinet in 2015.

The ECD 2015 is derived from the NDP 2012 which prioritizes Early Childhood Development (ECD). It (the NDP) defines a comprehensive package for ECD as “Family planning, healthy pregnancies and post-natal care; nutrition support for pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children; birth registration, social security and other state provision for the poor; support for parenting; quality learning by young children at home and in groups; preparation for formal schooling” and further suggests that the benefit to this substantial investment includes “better school enrollment rate, retention and academic performance; higher rates of high school completion; lower levels of antisocial behavior; higher earnings; better adult health and longevity” (NDP 2012 p.g 298).

The ECD Policy 2015 with all the elements articulated in the NDP 2012, aims at transforming ECD service delivery in South Africa, in particular address critical gaps and ensure the provision of a comprehensive universally available and equitable ECD services.

Expert after expert at Think Future 2 affirmed the NDP proposition of investing heavily ECD in many ways.

For example, Dr. Fischer spoke of the young brain displaying the greatest plasticity – the ability of the brain to modify its connections because it is when the brain neurons and synapses grow exponentially – huge growth even before the talking and walking stages of development. The human brain response to learning is most receptive at these young ages, even though human being can be retro “fixed”, the retro fixing requires extra effort.

What is of particular interest to me, as someone also responsible for facilitating at a national level the outcome “nation building, social cohesion and values,” was that children exposed to toxic stress have underdeveloped response to corrective feedback. The way I understood it is that, continuous toxic stress, violence, trauma and deprivation curtails the development of certain parts of the brain responsible for cognitive and emotional control, curtails brain plasticity, eventually leading to antisocial behavior, ill-health and poor school/learning outcomes. Therefore, in order to promote resilience, and support plasticity, infants must from the earliest possible periods be in environments of supportive responsive relationships. The ECD space should be such an environment, a safe space, a space where serve and return interactions, stimulation etc. can happen. This space that could be provided at a universal level is necessary in South Africa because of the potential high toxic levels due to high of deprivation and levels of violence.

Dr. Long further confirmed the need for universal access to ECD because 90% of a child’s brain development happens by the age of 6 and all possible means must be made to ensure optimal development. The massive inequalities mean that “those that have, more will be given” since they can access quality ECD, while the poor remain just that poor and excluded since they have had no opportunity to be in a stimulating safe environment when it mattered the most.

Dr. Long then blew my mind away by presenting evidence that “stress and trauma gets under our skin, adverse childhood experiences not only lead to growth and cognitive delays, anti-social behaviour, violence and obesity in adulthood but prolonged stress and trauma also remodels the genetic make-up of individuals. Profound stress in an older generation translates into an adaptation that is passed on to the next generation, setting social ills and diseases in motion.

Reading further on this intergenerational genetic transference of trauma even to offspring who did not experience the trauma, I understood the need for a massive intervention here in South Africa. Colonialism and apartheid were brutal systems that meant traumas for both the enforcers as well as the victims of the inhumane systems.

The effect of apartheid and colonialism are still visible – poor infrastructure for the previously black areas; apartheid spatial planning; income and poverty gaps with white people earning on average 6 times more than Africans.

Over and above the visible legacy, there is an invisible legacy that must still be tackled head on, at an early age while the brain plasticity is at its highest, end the toxic stress and help starve inherited trauma. This can be done through universal access to quality ECD.

So I left Think Future 2 almost a fanatic convert for ECD. If there is a miracle cure for the challenges facing South Africa, I want to propose that ECD, is the miracle cure. There is hope, there has been a massive expansion of vaccinations and ECD, there even were attempts to standardize the curriculum; subsidies given to ECD centres to improve quality of provision. Even though Grade R was introduced as part of the formal system only in 1998, through investments and reducing barriers to access, by 2017, the number of Grade R learners below the age of 6 stood at 839 515, from a baseline of 156 292 in 1999.

Universalising ECD is possible through partnerships. Government has prioritized it through the MTSF.

So South Africa, what are we waiting for?

About the Author

Josephilda Nhlapo-Hlope