Last Thursday, 11th of Feb, President Jacob Zuma presented his State of the Nation Address (SONA) to Parliament. The SONA traditionally provides a comprehensive overview of the key gains made in the previous year. The President has always used the opportunity to highlight the upcoming year’s policy and programmatic priorities cutting across social and economic sectors, as well as an indication of how these priorities link up with the country’s goals and objectives.
Not so this year. This year’s SONA appears to be an exercise in retrospective damage-control rather than an instrument for charting the way forward for government as a whole. It focuses almost exclusively on a short-term plan, the details of which are deferred to the Minister of Finance, for achieving a “resilient and fast-growing economy” which is earmarked as lying at “the heart of our radical economic transformation agenda and our National Development Plan”.
The emphasis of the SONA is on how the damage done to the country’s economy last year can be reversed quickly, specifically by making South Africa attractive to investors. The plan for the coming year comes in the wake of “sustained economic turmoil and pressures” and is driven by the imperative for speedy solutions. The year will be about crafting an effective “turnaround plan”; it will be “doing things differently and also acting on what may not have been acted upon quickly before”.
The SONA is almost exclusively concerned with short-term solutions on the economic front. Other than committing to the limitation of wasteful expenditure, “but without compromising on the core business of government and the provision of services”, the SONA is silent on what those core services are, and which will be prioritised in this time of fiscal constraint. It leaves the country in the dark as to the current administration’s medium-to-long term social development plan to bring about the “radical economic transformation” which the President identified as the goal for the current year.
The lasting impression left after the speech is that government will support the investment of energy and funds in those areas which will yield fast and tangible economic returns, and those areas with a high quotient of political volatility. Of all the social pressures that could have been mentioned and prioritised, the President focused almost exclusively on the resolution of the demand for affordable tertiary education.
So, where does this leave Early Childhood Development?
Early Childhood Development does not fit into the fast turnaround paradigm of the SONA. It is undoubtedly a key ingredient in bringing about a radical economic transformation. However, it is a long-term initiative which requires considered planning and patience. As mentioned in the last Policy Post, the pressure on government to find a “quick-fix” to the country’s economic crises raises the risk of demoting the policy and political importance of the longer-term social development vision of the country which calls for the prioritisation of investments from the bottom-up. The SONA certainly seems to be setting the scene for this risk to become a reality.
This means that, as a sector, we need to be robust in our advocacy and relentless in the pressure we exert on government. We must ensure that the national ECD policy’s recognition of the provision of quality services to pregnant women and young children and their families as the long-term and sustainable engine of the NDP receives the policy and financial priority it merits in 2016.
The Policy Post is written by Patricia Martin, the director of Advocacy Aid, a consultancy that provides advocacy support to the development sector. Patricia has worked as a child rights advocate and policy analyst for more than a decade and has a special interest in ECD policy and programme development and monitoring.