BASIC Education Minister Angie Motshekga has said early childhood development is the cornerstone of education and the moulding of future leaders.
She was speaking at this year's ECD awards in Centurion on Thursday, where winners from several provinces were honoured.
The winners are Melody Marescia, Phuthi Ragophala, Mary Mabatle, Georgina Bachelor and Hlengiwe Mthimkulu.
She said the ministry of education had been divided into two so that priority could be given to the foundation stage.
She said ECD had led to the rise of pupil numbers since 1994. Enrolment had increased from 15percent in 1999 to 50percent last year.
She said about 80percent of five-year-olds had access to education.
"Government expenditure on ECD and Grade R has increased tremendously and is still projected to grow strongly over the medium term at an average annual rate of 46,6percent," said Motshekga.
She paid tribute to the unsung heroes who laboured to prepare future generations to be productive and useful members of their communities.
Motshekga said education was a societal responsibility and the contribution of the private sector and non-governmental organisations had led to the realisation of the aims of the SA Congress for Early Childhood Development (SACECD).
"Let me also thank the founders of the SACECD who raise awareness of the ECD sector and to recognise the work done by women and men who selflessly give of their time with little monetary compensation."
The manager of Sowetan's nation building programme Victor Mecoamere paid tribute to Paulette Tshiredo, a member of the ECD panel who died following a domestic incident last week.