“If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

Partnering for High Quality Early Childhood Development in South Africa

Dr. Lenette Azzi-Lessing is the Associate Professor of Social Work at Wheelock College.  She is a faculty leader on Wheelock’s South Africa Service-Learning course.  This is a partnership program alongside South Africa Partners that works to strengthen the quality of early care and education in South Africa.

“If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” It was with this African proverb that Vice-Chancellor Mvuyo Tom of the University of Fort Hare, South Africa, emphasized the importance of collaboration, as he opened a recent planning summit hosted by Wheelock. The purpose of the two-day gathering was to plan the next phases of a trans-global partnership, aimed toward increasing capacity for the provision of high-quality early child development services in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa. South Africa Partners, based in Boston, initiated this promising partnership that includes community-based organizations in the Eastern Cape in addition to the University of Fort Hare and Wheelock.

Fifty-eight percent (58%) of young children in South Africa live in poverty. In the Eastern Cape region, 80% (715,000) of children under the age of six live in the poorest 40% of households. These children are most in need of early childhood development services (ECD); however, only about 20% of young children in the poorest households have access to such services. The number is even lower for young children with disabilities. In addition to the hardships of poverty, large numbers of South Africa’s youngest children are also coping with the loss of parents and other family members due to HIV/AIDS, and/or trauma from the family and community violence that plagues impoverished communities around the globe.

It is against this backdrop that South Africa’s government has moved toward recognition of quality Early Childhood Development (ECD) services as a universal right and a key component of the country’s National Development Plan. The goal is the provision of a comprehensive package of quality services that includes health care and nutrition, child protection, parenting support, and learning and care; from the prenatal period to age five. A key challenge in South Africa, as in other nations, is building infrastructure to ensure that programs are developed with a high level of quality, staffed by skilled personnel, and are responsive to the diverse needs of the young children and families they serve. These programs must also be responsive to the diverse cultural traditions throughout the country and build on the many strengths of these traditions and the families they encompass.

Wheelock, with its highly regarded Early Childhood Education and Social Work programs, as well as its Graduate Certificate Program in Early Childhood Mental Health, has a unique capacity to help support the development of quality ECD programs in South Africa. Through its Center for International Programs and Partnerships (CIPP), Wheelock’s Early Childhood Education and Social Work faculty members have been helping to assess ECD service need and capacity in the Eastern Cape. Professors Lenette Azzi-Lessing and Bobbi Rosenquest spent two weeks there last summer, working with staff members from South Africa Partners and local organizations and faculty members from the University of Fort Hare, in planning the trans-global, transdisciplinary ECD partnership. Dean Linda Davis visited the Eastern Cape in December to further advance the partnership.


Earlier last year, faculty and students in Wheelock’s South Africa Service-Learning Program participated in assessing seven ECD centers in the Eastern Cape; enhancing the quality of care provided in those and many other centers is a key objective of the partnership. Another is to support the University of Fort Hare in creating a resource center for ECD excellence and a degree program for professionals working with young children birth to age four. A third objective is to expand the capacity of organizations in the Eastern Cape to provide training, mentoring, and technical assistance to providers of services to young children and their families.

The recent summit brought to Wheelock, leaders and faculty members from the University of Fort Hare, leaders from South Africa Partners and its sister organization in the Eastern Cape, Masibumbane Development Organization (MDO), as well as the ELMA South Africa Philanthropies; to collaborate on plans for the partnership. After two very full and exhilarating days of mutual learning, visioning and planning, participants exchanged fond farewells.

Wheelock President Jackie Jenkins-Scott closed the summit by observing that “President Mandela said, ‘There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.’ Our work together over the past few days was inspiring and motivational as we made great progress in developing innovative, collaborative, high-quality services for the children of South Africa and in doing so, we will contribute to the well being of children of South Africa and the world.”

Learn more about the South Africa Partners Early Childhood Initiative

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