South Africa’s Great Potential

You are invited to contribute to help South Africa realize her potential. You are invited to be part of writing a new story for our future. A story that sees the boosted shared prosperity, inclusive economic growth, expanded equitable opportunity and the end of extreme poverty. We typically all long for this hope for a better future, but don’t know what we can personally do to make that difference. The World Health Organization tells us that the single biggest contributor to this new story for a country is investing in the earliest years of a child’s life. And this is something we can all do.

The opportunity is massive. If every South African made the effort to connect with and show care for families with children in the first thousand days of life we would grow and nurture greatness in our nation. A parent or caregiver who feels connected and cared for is better equipped to connect and care for his/her child and the knock-on effects of this responsive care giving are vital for a child’s brain growth and flourishing. Supporting families of children in their first thousand days of life has an exponential return for society at large. In fact, an investment of $1 in this stage yields $13 later on*.

The Church – more than any other organization or sector – is perfectly positioned and called to provide these loving caring connections where caregivers feel seen and supported. The call to care for the caregivers of our littlest children is compelling and persuasive – scientifically, economically and theologically.

If you’re feel nudged to step away from narratives of doom, gloom, despair and self-preservation towards a more empowered stance that seeks hopeful possibilities for our people and nation then this is what you can do:

Understand what FTD is and why it such a critical stage of human development

The first thousand days (FTD) is the period of a child’s life from conception to two years of age. It presents a profoundly important window of opportunity for brain development. When baby gets the right nutrition, health care, protection from harm and opportunities for early learning, his or her brain develops, setting the pathway for future flourishing. And all these crucial building blocks need to be shared and developed within the context of a loving, nurturing and responsive relationship. See our post Parents first for more details on this. This love, nourishment and care (in a safe and stimulating environment) ensures that children grow the cognitive, social, motor, emotional and behavioural skills they need to grab onto opportunity and resist adversity. It means they start life with a good chance to grow, thrive and contribute to their communities.

This season, or chapter, of every child’s life has such a powerful influence in a child’s life. Not only in that early stage, but for every stage of life. A baby’s brain makes 700 to 1000 new connections every second! This period of brain development is never repeated, and a three-year old’s brain is twice as active as an adult’s. this period, which presents the greatest opportunity for development, is also the time of greatest vulnerability. It follows that we need to be paying attention to the earliest stages to see that baby gets the best start in life.

Understand God’s heart for the smallest of children – everywhere

We see all over scripture the inherent dignity and worth of all people. Every person bears the image of God (Gen 1:26) and is loved by his or her creator God. We may think that this love becomes effective once the person is old enough to be able to comprehend various scriptures and theological concepts. This idea is thrown aside by the actions and teachings of Jesus. We see how He welcomed, embraced and blessed children, even nursing infants (Luke 18:15). This expression of his heart for little children moves his followers to express that same heart to the little ones around them, whether or not they are blood relatives.

Every child everywhere needs purposeful care and investment in this stage of the first thousand days. They are inherently worthy of it. They may be little in size, but they are of great importance in the kingdom of God. “Giving every child a good start in life is essential. It ensures that everyone can fulfill their potential, equally and with dignity” (*WHO, 2018, pg 24). Every child everywhere needs these building blocks. It is just how God has wired us. Across ethnicity, gender, language and culture, this is what every child everywhere needs.

Understand the injustice of wasted potential

We have to consider the sobering reality of our context: of the 75000 children born in the city of Cape Town on any given year, half will not be given the necessary building blocks to reach their God-given potential. All parents want the best for their children, but there are some factors that negatively impact a person’s care of the child in the FTD.

There are risks and barriers that inhibit caregiver’s capacity: factors like poverty, insecurity, gender inequalities, violence, environmental toxins and poor mental health affect caregivers negatively. Poverty, for example, does not immediately mean caregivers do not provide all that is necessary. What poverty does, however, is make it difficult for caregivers to consistently provide adequate nutrition, or have means to go to a clinic for health treatments. Violence in the community may be outside the child’s household, but places the child at risk, as well as create stress and anxiety in caregivers.

These deprivations of the building blocks hold back individual children and set into play a cycle of disadvantage and inequity that can continue for generations. Failing to invest in the first thousand days brings a great cost. Children who do not have nurturing care in these formative stages are more likely to have learning difficulties in school, having a ripple effect into their future earnings and the well-being of their family and their community.

Potential is being wasted. This is a great injustice.

The good news is that the right interventions at the right time can bolster a child’s development. For babies, this means that intervening early, when the brain is rapidly developing, can reverse harm caused by negative experiences. It can also help children build resilience. Nurturing care, protection and clean, positive stimulating environments are key ingredients, and can be integrated into existing efforts to provide a solid start in life for every child.

Commit to a journey of learning and action

Engaging with these topics can be overwhelming: there is just too much to be done. We have to recognize that there are different role players in serving our city’s children. At the same time, there is something unique about the local church. There is something it can do that no other entity can do and that is to be the hands and feet of Jesus. To reach, embrace and affirm the lives that are so precious to Him.

Psalm 78:5 tells us, “He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands”. The way we treat our children and the city’s children impacts their experience of God in their lives. Faith is proclaimed from one generation to the next. And Faith is to be demonstrated from one generation to the next. What an opportunity and responsibility the church has to support and invest in this stage of children’s lives, setting them up for growth and resilience for decades into the future.

Caring about the first thousand days is not just for those wanting, expecting or with children. It is something that everyone gets to engage in. Everyone person can be part of a village that surrounds a family unit. This web of support that carries families can provide what is needed to see that every little child is afforded the greatest chance of realizing the potential that God has wired into them.

Grow your awareness of the first thousand days. You can start with the other resources on this page. With that knowledge in hand, consider who is in the first thousand days in your circle of influence. This could be close family members, colleagues, church members or friends and acquaintances. Use what you have learned to be part of the village that is around a family unit in this stage. Explore what you can be doing in your workplace to make it a friendly place for parents of young children. And, it may be appropriate for you to reach out to fathers in this stage. Be sure to read our post on fatherhood to inform how you do that best.

All sectors must get involved – but first think about what you can do.

Invest in the next generation

There is an urgency to this. With such a crucial window of opportunity (and vulnerability) existing in so many lives this year, there is much to be done. Together, we can ensure that creating an environment and society where the FTD is a priority – in our country, our city, our churches and our own families.

This is about unveiling, revealing and nurturing the God-given potential in the smallest of these in our communities. This is about investing in tomorrow’s leaders, innovators, pastors, and entrepreneurs – the generation that will grow up with our children and our grandchildren. This is about getting the heart of Jesus for these treasured lives that are in our sphere. As our children are fearfully and wonderfully made by our heavenly Father, let us, the church, be the community in which they have a secure pathway for lifelong flourishing.


* World Health Organization, United Nations Children’s Fund, World Bank Group. Nurturing care for early childhood development: a framework for helping children survive and thrive to transform health and human potential. Geneva: World Health Organisation; 2018.