The causes of the Limpopo textbook crisis - Helen Zille

DA leader says sacking of Angie Motshekga would probably make a bad situation worse

Only voters can bring accountability to education

The textbook crisis in Limpopo is the tip of an iceberg of chaos in our country's education system.

Inevitably, the spectacle of textbooks being shredded and burnt (while pupils remain without learning resources in one of the worst-performing provinces) has elicited calls for Education Minister Angie Motshekga's resignation.

This is how things work in established democracies: Ministers are required to fall on their swords, even if the meltdown is not of their making.

And indeed Minister Motshekga has a lot to answer for as a review of recent developments reveals. The DA's timeline of the current crisis is instructive:

20 March 2011 - The ANC uses its majority in the Limpopo legislature to pass a bill to retrospectively condone unauthorized expenditure amounting to R852 million. (The auditor general's report reveals total unauthorized expenditure in Limpopo rose from R1.5 billion in 2009 to R2.7 billion in 2011.)

5 December 2011 - The Limpopo Education Department is placed under national administration.

5 January 2012 - Announcing the matric results, Minister Motshekga promises that all learners will receive their textbooks on time at the start of the school year.

10 January 2012 - The DA calls on the Limpopo legislature to urgently reconvene from recess so that the MEC can account for the textbook crisis.

16 January 2012 - The Publishers' Association of South Africa (PASA) confirms that the Limpopo government has not yet ordered any textbooks for the 2012 school year.

18 January 2012 - Children return to school for the first term of 2012.

23 April 2012 - When there are still no textbooks at the end of the first term, the DA writes to the Human Rights Commission (HRC), and calls for the Limpopo legislature to cancel its recess to deal with the textbooks crisis.

17 May 2012 - Following a case brought by an NGO, Equal Education, the North Gauteng High Court instructs Minister Angie Motshekga to ensure that textbooks are delivered to over 5000 schools in Limpopo by 15 June. The Minister is also instructed to put a credible catch-up plan in place for learners.

31 May 2012 - The Department of Education officially approaches the North Gauteng High Court to review the ruling that it needs to deliver books and provide reports on a catch-up plan for learners.

5 June 2012 - The DA in Limpopo meets with the HRC. The HRC agree to intervene in the non-delivery of textbooks within 7 days of the meeting.

15 June 2012 - The court deadline for the delivery of textbooks is missed.

15 June 2012 - The Minister and her deputy state at a press conference that there is "no crisis in education".

20 June 2012 - A DA inspection finds the Polokwane warehouse containing many thousands of undelivered textbooks.

21 June 2012 - The Minister declines the DA's offer to provide a fleet of vehicles to help deliver textbooks to schools in all Limpopo's education districts. The vehicles would have been ready within 48 hours at the DA's expense.

22 June 2012 - The Minister announces that the new deadline for delivering textbooks to schools will be Wednesday, 27 June. Minister Motshekga acknowledges that a credible catch-up plan for learners is not yet in place; and that she is unable to fire anyone despite the crisis.

22 June 2012 - The DA discovers textbooks that are being shredded and burnt by a contractor in Seshego, reportedly at government expense.

From the above, it is clear that a compelling case can be made for Minister Motshekga to go. The question is: what then?  

A crisis like this does not develop overnight. Indeed, this one has been 18 years in the making. Firing the Minister would treat a superficial symptom, but leave the root causes unaddressed. In truth, without Minister Motshekga, things would probably go from bad to worse.

Ironically, we in the Western Cape have experienced Minister Angie Motshekga as one of the few - perhaps the only - Education Ministers since the dawn of democracy 18 years ago who genuinely understands the needs of the school system and is prepared to take some tough decisions to fix it. She stands virtually alone, in the wasteland of education's "shell state", where many incompetent cadres masquerade as top officials with fancy titles, but have little understanding of and even less commitment to the needs of education.  

Minister Motshekga was, for example, prepared to compel both her officials and school principals to sign performance contracts - but was undermined by President Jacob Zuma who forced her to back down because he did not want to alienate the South African Democratic Teachers' Union in the run-up to the ANC's Mangaung elective conference. Under pressure from below and above, the Minister was in an impossible situation. She was prevented from exacting accountability from teachers and officials - but must now accept accountability for failing to turn the ailing system around.

The truth is that the collapse of education in several provinces is the result of 18 years of bad policy, poor planning, and (most pernicious of all) cadre deployment. No system anywhere in the world could have survived this toxic combination. Only a very brave Minister with a free hand to take unpopular decisions will be able to address the causes rather than the symptoms of this collapse. And even then, it will take many years to fix the root problems.

The only reason that education has not collapsed throughout the country is because of the existence of provinces and the power they can exercise in education. Some provincial administrations have been more effective in curtailing the rot than others. If it were not for the substantial provincial powers in education, the story of Limpopo and the Eastern Cape would today be the story of education across the whole of South Africa. 

Our experience in the Western Cape has been instructive.

When the DA came to power in 2009, the Western Cape was also well on the way to becoming a "failed state" in education, following a downward spiral of eight years.  

We took immediate action to appoint the right people in key positions (to the greatest extent possible) and I believe this has been the key to our successful turn-around.  

In doing so we have relied on the support of Minister Motshekga in taking some very unpopular decisions to increase accountability in the system, measuring outcomes on the basis of pupils' results. She also supported us in introducing competency testing for exam markers (which has subsequently been adopted as national policy); and she backed us in allocating significantly increased resources to the provision of excellent textbooks for pupils.  

Ironically, the revival of education in the Western Cape is perhaps the best illustration of how co-operative governance is intended to work to everyone's advantage in our constitutional dispensation, and how pivotal provinces are in this process.

By placing Limpopo and the Eastern Cape under administration, Minister Motshekga was no doubt trying to achieve a turn-around in these provinces as well. But she was building on quick-sand. The deployed cadres remained in place, and are both unable and unwilling to co-operate. The foundations had collapsed.

Perhaps the best argument for firing the Minister would be to end to the policy of cadre deployment. If there was a high price to pay for failure, future Ministers would arguably shy away from repeating this recipe for disaster. But while the governing party and the President himself are so determined to continue and entrench cadre deployment to protect their own positions, no Minister can succeed in turning the education system around.

Another dimension of "cadre deployment" is the repeated use of specific companies in service delivery. Many questions must be asked about the role of "EduSolutions" in the procurement of goods and services in education. Who are the directors of this company? Who stands to benefit? And why did this company always emerge as the "preferred provider"? If we get answers to some of these questions, we will come a bit closer to understanding the fiasco of delivery failure in many aspects of education provisioning, including textbooks.   

Understanding the problem is one thing. Fixing it is quite another. This cannot happen unless voters understand their role in doing so. Tragically, the "failed state" will continue to spread its tentacles, until voters accept the responsibility that democracy gives them to hold their leaders to account. Until then, they will get the government the majority voted for, whether they deserve it or not. And school children, who cannot yet vote, will continue to bear the brunt of their parents' decisions.

Sincerely yours,

Helen Zille

This article by Helen Zille first appeared in SA Today, the weekly online newsletter of the leader of the Democratic Alliance.

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter