Better politics is essential to fix education

Learners in a mud school. Photo courtesy of Equal Education.

Nathan Geffen

3 October 2012

The Limpopo textbooks debacle has exposed the staggering incompetence of Angie Motshekga, the Minister of Basic Education, and Bobby Soobrayan, her Director-General. But a recent incident indicates that they or their colleagues in the Department of Basic Education are also very nasty.

Yesterday the North Gauteng High Court held another hearing in the textbooks matter. SECTION27, Hanyani Thomo Secondary School and Lutandale Primary School brought a further court application because the Department of Basic Education has failed to comply with two previous court judgements which ordered it to supply textbooks to schools in Limpopo and to provide a catch-up plan for the province.

In this latest case, one of the original applicants, a principal of 22 years at a Limpopo school, was intimidated out of continuing to be an applicant. The facts of this can be assembled from the court papers that were filed. This kind of intimidation cannot be described as incompetence. Thuggery is a term that comes to mind.

Motshekga and Soobrayan have also failed to provide a minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure policy, for which Equal Education has been campaigning for years. They have also failed to fix the mud schools in the Eastern Cape. This will be the subject of another court case next month in Bhisho.

When GroundUp journalists write stories, they have to solicit comment from all protaganists. Getting a response from the Department of Basic Education is near-impossible as a story by Mary-Anne Gontsana in today’s issue relates:

GroundUp phoned the Department of Basic Education to get a response from Linda Chrisholm, advisor to the Minister. But all attempts to get hold of her failed. We also attempted to get hold of Steve Mabua, the Minister’s private secretary, but his phone was consistently off.

This is a department singly unable to deliver or to manage the most basic logistics.

Some commentators have suggested the textbook crisis can be resolved by technology such as replacing paper books with e-books or tablets. It is conceivable that e-books and tablets will become a standard in the South African school system in the future, but this is not the panacea for the failure to deliver textbooks. We need proper logistics in place whether it be for the delivery of paper books or e-books. And we need the state to manage those logistics; it is one of its constitutional duties.

The failure to deliver textbooks in Limpopo is a problem that has been ongoing for a long time. It is a consequence of the failure to get basic logistics right. While it is not trivial to get textbooks delivered, by 2012 it is reasonable to expect that the systems would have been developed to make the process run like clockwork. But this development of operational systems at all levels of government, not just in education, is being broken by corrupt tenders and the appointment of unqualified people because of cadre, friend and family deployment. Addressing this scourge is one of the central political challenges facing South Africa.

E-books and tablets are marvellous, but they will break frequently (books are much hardier), especially in school environments, require electricity to be recharged and wireless internet access to download books. This is not available consistently in schools across the country. For example 3,600 schools still have no electricity, a very old technology. 1 There are also a whole bunch of user acceptance, cost and intellectual property issues that have to be addressed to successfully roll out e-books. None of these are insurmountable challenges but they are at least as complex presently as rolling out paper textbooks. The panacea does not lie in technology, though we should certainly welcome technological innovation into our schools. But the failures of the Department of Basic Education are political and it is through political action that they must primarily be addressed.

  1. Department of Basic Education. 2011. National Education Infrastructure Management Systems (NEIMS) Report ↩