Times are tough. In South Africa, one in three adults is unemployed. Load shedding is pummeling our economy, and only four in 10 children who attend preschool programmes are on track to thrive by the time they start school.
It is easy for funders, policymakers, and community organisations to feel torn. Is it more impactful to put bread on a family's table today, or to invest in child education and well-being so the next generation will have a better life in 15 years' time?
It does not have to be a trade-off. The concept of “social employment” holds huge promise for tackling these problems hand in hand. It can improve lives, build skills and capabilities, and unlock future opportunities for both adults and children.
How? A social employment approach recognises that there is no shortage of work that can be done to address our social, economic, and environmental challenges. It is a tragic irony that so many South Africans struggle to find work when there is so much work that needs to be done.
It also acknowledges that markets alone cannot create enough jobs. The state needs to help close this gap - and it needs to recruit other actors to the cause.
Nal'ibali, the national literacy campaign I work for, is one of 28 organisations across the country helping to roll out the Social Employment Fund. The Fund is part of the Presidential Employment Stimulus package, which President Cyril Ramaphosa launched in October 2020 to counteract COVID-19's impact on the economy.
In its pilot round, the Social Employment Fund is creating 50,000 jobs in sectors as diverse as education support, alien plant removal, after-school arts programmes and infrastructure development. Jobs must contribute to “work for the common good,” and should be accessible to unemployed people without formal education or prior work experience.
This has enabled Nal'ibali to train 1,000 people to run a family and community literacy programme. Twice a week, the people we've hired read aloud to preschools and Grade R classrooms and run community reading clubs. At these clubs, children practice reading and writing skills in a safe, fun-filled environment where home languages are celebrated.
These 1,000 people visit families to give away books and share tips for helping small children learn. They hand out African-language reading materials in public spaces like clinics, taxi ranks and malls.
And they each received 20 children's books of their own, to keep after the project has ended, so they too can enjoy the benefits of reading and sharing stories with their own families, just as they are sharing those benefits with others.
As they do this work, they will build skills in planning, facilitation, communication, and administration - building confidence, self-esteem and dignity. They will learn to problem-solve on their feet, work as a team and be accountable - skills that transfer well to other contexts. They will build networks and connections that can help them access future opportunities.
All in all, Nal'ibali's 1,000 literacy champions will bring an exciting educational programme to 450 preschools and 3,600 families in seven provinces. More than 20,000 children in 71 communities will have regular, high-quality learning experiences.
A month in, we are already beginning to see ripples of impact. Many of our new recruits have started reading aloud with their children at home - adopting a habit that strengthens family connections and builds children's brains. Many schools and parents are clamoring for reading materials, activities, and support. New reading clubs are springing up across the country.
This is powerful - and we are proud to be a part of it. But it is not enough. An estimated 2.5 million kids under age five are not accessing age-appropriate early learning programmes. To close that gap, we need at least 200,000 more early childhood development practitioners.
45% of our public-school teachers will retire in the next decade. To meet this gap, we need to double the number of teachers graduating each year - from 26,000 to 50,000 - by 2030.
Many people we've trained at Nal'ibali have the aptitude to be great preschool and primary school teachers but haven't had the opportunity to find out - because they couldn't afford higher education, didn't know how to enroll, didn't have the marks, or lacked confidence.
Government, the private sector, and civil society need to scale up social employment, while building strong pathways into these critical occupations - and others that are key for our collective survival, like food production, affordable housing, and climate adaptation. The power we could unleash is immense, and we can't afford not to do it.
Katie Huston is the head of research, impact and innovation at Nal'ibali.