For anyone interested in the ‘soft issues’ of public policy and law-making, Parliament’s ongoing Children’s Amendment Bill hearings have been a real eye-opener. Intended to address long-standing gaps in SA’s foster care administration system (TimesLIVE), the Bill nevertheless also includes some provisions dealing with early childhood development. But in March, the National Assembly’s Social Development Committee rejected these clauses in response to concerns expressed by the South African Local Government Association about its exclusion from pre-tabling stakeholder consultations.

Yet throughout nationwide public hearings on the Bill, participants have repeatedly raised issues directly related to early childhood development. And few hearings have yielded anything of substance on the Bill itself. In fact, most attendees have used them to draw attention to an array of social ills far beyond the Bill’s scope to address. These have included the ‘historical problem of unmarried fathers’; the ‘customary practices’ and responsibilities associated with raising children in these circumstances; children with special needs; child marriages; and the difficulties faced by children born to foreign nationals and undocumented South Africans.

According to a recent Pretoria News article, during hearings in Soshanguwe the need for legislation to facilitate ‘the safe relinquishment of unwanted babies’ was raised. In Bethlehem, participants voiced concerns about ‘child abandonment’, blaming it on the ‘prolonged adoption process’, among other things – and drawing attention to ‘unfavourable environments’ in which abandoned children find themselves exposed to ‘exploitation and abuse’. Clearly, ordinary South Africans want something done. But is it fair to raise expectations in this way? How can Parliament ensure that the participants in public hearings on Bills are adequately informed of their role in the law-making process?