Learning quickly from Covid-19

It was a bit like waiting for a hurricane, except that we knew that it would definitely make landfall.  So we battened down the hatches and waited in the eerie calm until the Covid-19 storm hit.

As a South African foundation, the DG Murray Trust (DGMT) quickly pivoted its work to key areas which we felt might be neglected in the national response, and approached the Solidarity Fund, other donors and NGOs and commercial companies to support these efforts. They included providing personal protective equipment (PPE) and support for community-level workers, whom we suspected might be at the back of the line when rationing really kicked in; producing daily Sikhaba iCovid-19 radio inserts in 12 languages on behalf of the Department of Health; and appealing to mobile network operators to expedite the zero-rating of digital content of public benefit organisations (PBOs) so that poorer families would have access to come reading and educational content during the lockdown. Little did we realise then that hunger would fast become the biggest issue for communities. Now, even many community care workers we support ask for food ahead of PPE.

We’re still in the thick of things and it would foolish to predict too much too soon. However, many of the scenes playing out across South Africa are not novel, unlike Covid. Instead, they’ve been with us for a very long time and the pandemic has just brought things to a head.  These we must now address urgently. In the same way that Finance Minister Tito Mboweni has touted zero-based budgeting as a way to prioritise spending, so we need to get back to the basics of human development.

The starkest insight is that a substantial number of South Africans teeter on the edge of food insecurity. One proxy of that number is the proportion of children under five who are nutritionally stunted. That’s just over a quarter. When a crisis hits, they’re hit hardest as their families substitute maize meal products for the little protein they used to buy.  Food and nutrition security must be pushed to the top of the national agenda, and the starting point is to use public money already allocated to it more efficiently. Currently, it cost the state over R1000 for very R700 food parcel delivered to a family in distress, because of the costs of logistics and the overheads of service providers. Together with the technology companies Flash and Kazang, DGMT has pioneered the distribution of digital vouchers, sent via cellphone and redeemable at 220,000 spaza shops across the country. This method reduces transaction costs to almost nothing.  If this system were implemented for Social Relief of Distress, it would stretch the R407 million allocated to the programme in this financial year about 60% further. That alone won’t solve the immediate hunger crisis, let alone long-term nutritional insecurity, which will require all sectors of society to step up to the plate.  It has been disheartening to see the manufacturing and retail food sectors push up prices by 11% since March 2020, resist pleas to waive the mark-ups on an essential basket of nutritious foods, and hurriedly introduce their own branded digital vouchers to capitalise on the goodwill of ordinary South Africans who bought food for others in greater need.

However it’s not only food that our youngest children miss out on, but early learning opportunities as well. Children from impoverished circumstances would benefit the most from out-of-home ECD programmes, yet we have become so obsessed with administrative compliance and overly restrictive municipal bylaws that the system leaves the poorest children out. The onerous conditions for re-opening ECD facilities just exacerbate exclusion. Non-government organisations in South Africa have shown that good quality early learning can take place in the most rudimentary of settings, provided the children are safe and are fed. We must turn our national system of ECD on its head – focused on the substance of early programmes and not the structures in which they take place.  If we don’t, children in informal settlements and rural areas will remain outside of the system for the next twenty years.  If that happens, our education system will continue to fail half our children and rates of unemployment won’t budge.

Of course, parents are their children’s first educators, a fact reinforced by the Covid-19 crisis, especially in the development of language and basic numerical concepts.  Imagine if, at the start of the lockdown, South Africa had prioritized access to stories and other reading material for children and helped parents access them on mobile phones.  Inevitably wealthier children just clicked on their web browsers, while the poorest children sat at home for four months without a single book. It was only at the end of July 2020 that all mobile operators acceded to demands to prioritise zero-rating of websites like Nal’ibali, FunDza and SmartStart. DGMT had facilitated submissions for approval for zero-rating of public benefit organisations (PBOs) in terms of the disaster regulations, but universities and TVET colleges were prioritised. We disagreed with that, but understood the need to get higher education students learning again. The last straw was when public benefit organisations were pushed to the back of the queue in favour of schools with access to online learner management systems, and we applied for a court order against MTN. It had argued that it was just following government’s orders. MTN then complied within a week.

These experiences highlight some of the sticky institutional problems in South Africa today: a government that struggles to recognise, let alone deliver the basics that would start to unlock more of the country’s huge potential; a corporate sector that is willing to help in times of crisis, but not quite enough to affect their bottom line in the short-term, even if it would assist long-term economic growth; and a civil society that is marginalised in national forums such as NEDLAC.

We will get beyond Covid-19, but it will leave our society even more brittle. The President is politically embattled, but behind the scenes, he has been working on a new set of smart partnerships to bring together the public, commercial and civil society sectors. We must get behind his efforts.  If they fail, it is difficult to see a way forward.  The corporate sector must now get to grips with what inclusive growth means; making money and paying taxes is simply not enough. Civil society needs to get more organized and position itself as an equal player at the national table. While politicians made rules and pronouncements during the lockdown, non-government organisations provided at least some safety net until and beyond the government’s augmentation of social security. Yet high-ranking officials saw fit to attack and attempt to close down these efforts.

This is the conundrum we face today. ‘Government’ is not a monolith. It is made up of many people, competent and inept, friendly and bristly – and everything in between. There is huge goodwill from most of the public and assurances of a better life for all from the governing party, yet powerful influences within that same party pulling in the opposite direction. In this tug-o-war, foundations such as DGMT cannot be neutral. The stakes are too high. We, together with the rest of civil society, must get behind the efforts of those parts of government that are trying to make things work while reserving our rights to challenge government when it persistently fails its people and ensure a politically literate society able to make informed choices in the next elections.

This article was first published by the Daily Maverick on 07 August 2020. Find it here.

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