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