Ba­sic Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter is more ef­fec­tive than the me­dia would have us be­lieve, writes Helen Zille

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES -

ANY­ONE who fol­lows the me­dia knows that jour­nal­ists “hunt in packs”. Once they iden­tify their “prey”, they gun them down. When a tar­get seems mor­tally wounded, “com­men­ta­tors” and “columnists” move in to fin­ish them off.

In jour­nal­is­tic cliché, it is called “speak­ing truth to power”.

Wil­liam Saun­der­son Meyer is this genre’s poster boy. Pre­dictably, he has turned his guns on the me­dia’s favourite “hate tar­get”, Min­is­ter of Ba­sic Ed­u­ca­tion Angie Mot­shekga. His rea­sons seem plau­si­ble and even self-ev­i­dent: the non-de­liv­ery of text­books in Lim­popo; miss­ing agreed dead­lines for pub­lish­ing fi­nal norms and stan­dards for school in­fra­struc­ture; and the fail­ure to turn around the ed­u­ca­tion cri­sis in var­i­ous prov­inces, par­tic­u­larly the Eastern Cape.

As usual, things are not as sim­ple as they seem.

Let’s start with the con­sti­tu­tion. Ed­u­ca­tion is a con­cur­rent power, shared by national and provin­cial gov­ern­ments. But when the rel­e­vant con­sti­tu­tional clauses are un­packed, the real power lies in the prov­inces.

The national govern­ment is con­fined to es­tab­lish­ing “norms and stan­dards”, “frame­works” or “national poli­cies”, and then only in spe­cific con­di­tions.

Prov­inces have ex­ten­sive pow­ers to pass and im­ple­ment their own laws. And prov­inces ac­tu­ally run the school sys­tem. As Kader Asmal noted, the national depart­ment has a smaller bud­get and far fewer pow­ers than any of the prov­inces when it comes to ed­u­ca­tion.

The ques­tion is, has Angie Mot­shekga ful­filled her con­sti­tu­tional re­spon­si­bil­i­ties? On the ba­sis of the record, she has done so to a far greater de­gree than any of her pre­de­ces­sors. She ac­tu­ally un­der­stands con­di­tions in the aver­age dis­ad­van­taged class­room.

As a re­sult she is try­ing to de­velop “norms, stan­dards, poli­cies and frame­works” that take ac­count of re­al­ity. That on its own, is a gi­ant leap for­ward for ed­u­ca­tion.

So, you cor­rectly ask, why has Min­is­ter Mot­shekga not fi­nalised norms and stan­dards for school in­fra­struc­ture? She in­her­ited a draft from her pre­de­ces­sor Naledi Pan­dor. So (you could ar­gue) at least half the job was al­ready done.

But Min­is­ter Mot­shekga recog­nised that the ide­al­is­tic norms and stan­dards for “state-of-the-art” in­fra­struc­ture could not pos­si­bly be achieved in the real world. Fur­ther­more, the Trea­sury would not fund this pro­posal. Af­ter all, most prov­inces can­not even spend their cur­rent in­fra­struc­ture bud­gets. The min­is­ter (sen­si­bly, in my view) con­cluded that there was no point in set­ting un­achiev­able and un­af­ford­able stan­dards. In­stead she be­gan work­ing through the tor­tu­ous pub­lic-par­tic­i­pa­tion pro­cesses re­quired by law to es­tab­lish new “norms and stan­dards”.

Where she erred was believ­ing that it would be pos­si­ble to cut through the red- tape jun­gle by June 15. So, she should not have sup­ported an un­re­al­is­tic dead­line, and in par­tic­u­lar, she should not have agreed to it be­com­ing an or­der of court.

We have been through the mis­guided process of set­ting un­achiev­able stan­dards be­fore, with the disas­ter called Cur­ricu­lum 2005, an im­prac­ti­cal and es­o­teric “con­tent­free” cur­ricu­lum, en­thu­si­as­ti­cally sup­ported by two for­mer ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ters.

Any­one with any idea of the re­al­ity in dis­ad­van­taged class­rooms would have known that this cur­ricu­lum was un­im­ple­mentable. Pre­dictably, it wreaked havoc be­fore it was re­tracted, and set back ed­u­ca­tion trans­for­ma­tion by at least 15 years. Angie Mot­shekga has avoided com­pa­ra­ble risks on the in­fra­struc­ture side by with­draw­ing im­prac­ti­cal and un­achiev­able “norms and stan­dards”.

It makes more sense to give her an­other six months to put some­thing re­al­is­tic on the ta­ble than waste an­other six years and hun­dreds of mil­lions of rands on an in­fra­struc­ture plan, when most prov­inces can­not even spend their ex­ist­ing bud­gets.

But (the next ar­gu­ment goes), if she un­der­stands the re­al­i­ties in the class­room, how can one ex­plain the fail­ure to de­liver text­books in Lim­popo?

The an­swer is: the timeous or­der­ing and dis­tri­bu­tion of text­books is a provin­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity. Mot­shekga did what she was sup­posed to do. She set “poli­cies, frame­works, norms and stan­dards” for text­book de­liv­ery. She in­structed that by 2014 ev­ery child in ev­ery class­room should have a good text­book for ev­ery sub­ject.

This is the first time a national min­is­ter has pre­scribed this self-ev­i­dent pol­icy. And only the Western Cape will meet this tar­get. That is not the min­is­ter’s fault.

In Lim­popo, text­books were not de­liv­ered at all. This is be­cause there was no money left in that mis­man­aged prov­ince’s bud­get for text­books. By the time the Trea­sury raised the alarm, it was way too late. The national norm for an ed­u­ca­tion bud­get is a ra­tio of 80:20 be­tween per­son­nel:non-per­son­nel spend­ing.

Per­son­nel spend­ing refers to salaries. Non-per­son­nel spend­ing in­cludes all the other re­quire­ments of a func­tional ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, such as learn­ing ma­te­ri­als, school feed­ing and pupil trans­port.

Lim­popo’s ed­u­ca­tion depart­ment spends over 90 per­cent on per­son­nel. As a re­sult there is al­most noth­ing left for any­thing else, once all the cronies have fed at the ten­der trough. There is cer­tainly no money for de­cent text­books, prop­erly ac­quired.

Why is it im­pos­si­ble for Lim­popo (and other prov­inces, es­pe­cially the Eastern Cape) to get this spend­ing ra­tio right? It is be­cause Lim­popo has huge num­bers of ex­cess teach­ers, who can­not be “matched and placed” be­cause of op­po­si­tion from the so-called South African Demo­cratic Teach­ers Union (Sadtu).

So, Lim­popo is car­ry­ing a huge load of ed­u­ca­tors on full pay who aren’t work­ing. That is why it can­not buy text­books.

The national Trea­sury un­der­stand­ably drew the line and re­fused to bail Lim­popo out, un­til it had “bit­ten the bul­let”. The re­sult was no text­books.

So, can some­one ex­plain the logic of blam­ing Mot­shekga – the only min­is­ter who has ever fully un­der­stood the im­por­tance of text­books, and the only min­is­ter who has in­sisted that there must be text­books for ev­ery pupil in ev­ery sub­ject in ev­ery class?

Which brings us to the third point of at­tack. Why has Angie failed to turn around Eastern Cape Ed­u­ca­tion de­spite the fact that the prov­ince is “un­der ad­min­is­tra­tion”?

The rea­son is again clear. Sadtu runs ed­u­ca­tion in the Eastern Cape. And there are so many ex­cess ed­u­ca­tors “dou­ble parked” in schools with dwin­dling pupil num­bers, that there is no money for any­thing else.

It is com­plete chaos. Mo­didima Man­nya was in­stalled as the Eastern Cape su­per­in­ten­dent gen­eral of ed­u­ca­tion, backed by Min­is­ter Mot­shekga, to take on Sadtu and sort out the mess.

He tried. But he was blocked at ev­ery turn when he tried to deal with the bur­geon­ing num­bers of tem­po­rary teach­ers em­ployed in many schools de­spite the high num­ber of “ex­cess teach­ers”. Sadtu won be­cause it knows how to wield its power in the ANC’s in­ter­nal power strug­gles.

Sadtu holds the bal­ance of power in Cosatu’s pro- and anti-Zuma fac­tions. So it is un­sur­pris­ing that the pres­i­dent backed Sadtu against Mot­shekga. Man­nya was forced out. And Mot­shekga got the blame. For all those ad­vo­cates of speak­ing “truth to power”, where does the truth ac­tu­ally lie?

It is re­flected in the fact that only the Western Cape has brought the num­ber of “ex­cess teach­ers” down to 1 per­cent. That is why we have money left over for text­books, tech­nol­ogy, school feed­ing and pupil trans­port. And we have done that within the norms and stan­dards ad­vised by Min­is­ter Mot­shekga.

In the Western Cape, we have ex­pe­ri­enced Angie Mot­shekga as the first min­is­ter who un­der­stands what needs to be done to fix ed­u­ca­tion in poor schools.

She has sup­ported pro­grammes to test pupil achieve­ment; she has ap­proved per­for­mance con­tracts and as­sess­ments for teach­ers and prin­ci­pals (vig­or­ously op­posed by Sadtu); she has sup­ported rig­or­ous time man­age­ment; and she is a great pro­po­nent of good text­books.

The prob­lem is that she can­not get any of th­ese poli­cies im­ple­mented with­out suf­fi­cient ca­pac­ity in the prov­inces and the co-op­er­a­tion of Sadtu.

Some peo­ple would use this as an ar­gu­ment for strip­ping prov­inces of their pow­ers. This is a fal­la­cious ar­gu­ment.

What is re­quired is vot­ers who hold their provin­cial gov­ern­ments to ac­count. It is time that ev­ery­one (es­pe­cially po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tors) be­gan to un­der­stand how pow­er­ful prov­inces ac­tu­ally are, in the de­liv­ery of health and ed­u­ca­tion.

In a democ­racy, vot­ers get the govern­ment the ma­jor­ity voted for, which is the govern­ment they de­serve. Vot­ers hold the so­lu­tion in their hands. And they should use it to elect com­pe­tent provin­cial gov­ern­ments, or blame them­selves.

Zille is the pre­mier of the Western Cape and leader of the DA.

PIC­TURES: REUTERS AND BONGIWE MCHUNU

CHAOS: Chil­dren take notes from a makeshift black­board at an Eastern Cape school last year. Min­is­ter of Ba­sic Ed­u­ca­tion Angie Mot­shekga, above right, is the first min­is­ter who un­der­stands what needs to be done to fix ed­u­ca­tion in poor schools, but she is shack­led by the South African Demo­cratic Teach­ers Union, which holds the bal­ance of power in Cosatu, says Helen Zille.

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