Events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to undo 20 years of sustained expansion in access to early childhood care and education (ECCE) in South Africa. In this paper, we explore the underlying structural weaknesses in non-grade R ECCE provisioning that were exposed through the pandemic, and the strengths that have surfaced. Through a lens of sustainability, capacity, and accountability, we also review the policy and civil society responses (and in some cases, non- responses) that emerged following the pandemic induced ECCE crisis. We consider what these policy responses and events reveal about how the sector is viewed and prioritised by government. Despite the challenges experienced through the pandemic, the lessons gathered are useful in preparing for structural reforms in the ECCE system.