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DST Deputy Minister Advocate Michael Masutha
and Professor Linda Richter.

The Deputy Minister of Science and Technology, Advocate Michael Masutha, launched the Centre of Excellence (CoE) in Human Development to ensure a better response to child development challenges in the country.

The CoE is one of five new Department of Science and Technology-National Research Foundation CoEs approved last month by the Minister of Science and Technology, Derek Hanekom, in order to promote collaborative and interdisciplinary research among research-performing institutions, and to provide high-end skills development in priority research areas.

Co-hosted by the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), the new CoE headed up by the Professor Linda Richter, will focus on ensuring that children are provided for and receive a better start to life in the country.

According to research, South Africa has very high rates of child poverty. In 2011, 58% of children lived below the lower poverty line (R604 per month). Globally, 171 million children under five were affected by moderate or severe stunting in 2010 – a clear sign of malnutrition, which affects children’s physical and cognitive development and capacity to learn. Current trends indicate that by 2015 one in four children under the age five will suffer from stunted growth.

About 57% of young children in developing countries have no access to preschool – in sub-Saharan Africa the figure is 83% – and children living in the poorest households are up to 10 times less likely to attend early childhood education programmes than those living in the richest.

Deputy Minister Masutha said that early childhood development (ECD) was a national priority. The Office of the President had declared this in 2004, and directives had been issued for municipalities to include ECD planning in their integrated development plans. Since then, the 2005 National Integrated Plan for ECD had been published, and the 2007 Children’s Amendment Act had been passed, strengthening government commitment in this important area.

“The CoE will combine the multidisciplinary expertise of established scholars with dedicated research groups working on child development. The team’s diverse strengths will enable a better understanding of the challenges in respect of child development in South Africa, improve the country’s ability to address these challenges, and advocate for the most cost-effective interventions to give all children the best possible start in life,” he said.

Prof. Cheryl Potgieter, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Humanities at UKZN, said that the university welcomed the opportunity to co-host the CoE with Wits.

“Partnerships are the cornerstone of the development framework and essential in mobilising support and investment,” said Prof. Potgieter.  “In line with the Millennium Development Goals, the centre will focus on human capacity, particularly economic participation and health, which will contribute significantly to enhancing and empowering the youth and ultimately all South African citizens.”

The research at the centre will help improve decision-makers’ understanding of the conditions, dynamics and efficacy of policies among socially and economically marginalised societies in South Africa.  This is of particular importance in view of the Millennium Development Goals and continued global efforts to reduce poverty, inequality and discrimination, and promote democracy and human rights.