President's class war
Is the writing really on the wall for beleaguered Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga?
Judging by newspaper headlines over the past few days, pressure is mounting on President Jacob Zuma to sack the minister because of her department's scandalous handling of the Limpopo textbooks crisis.
Speculation that Motshekga's days in charge of education are numbered has been given credence by the unusually tough stance on the issue adopted by the ANC's national executive committee after its four-day meeting this past week.
Over the years, South Africans have become accustomed to the committee being overly protective of ministers whose departments are accused of maladministration.
Much of the past decade, for instance, was dominated by the Health Department's controversial approach to HIV/Aids.
We seldom heard from the national executive committee about Aids and, when it did speak, it did so in defence of the then minister of health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, and her boss, Thabo Mbeki.
In those days, individual committee members would rather express their views in private than risk the wrath of party bosses.
Seemingly this is not the case with the post-Polokwane version of the committee. By all accounts, last week's lekgotla was brutally frank in its assessment of how Motshekga's department had failed Limpopo pupils who went without textbooks for seven months.
"The [committee] acknowledged that this is a serious failure on the part of the government, and the Department of Basic Education in particular, at both national and provincial level. It is a failure to honour the right of every child to education, as enshrined in the constitution," said ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe on Monday.
Damning words. But do they mean that Motshekga is on her way out? To most of us the answer would be an obvious "yes".
How can the president justify keeping a minister who has "failed to honour" the constitutionally guaranteed "right of every child to education" in such an important position?
Since coming to power, Zuma has repeatedly said education is a priority for his administration. So can he risk failure in this area by keeping Motshekga on the job?
Since the textbooks saga first made the headlines, Zuma has insisted that heads would roll.
He repeated as much yesterday through his spokesman, Mac Maharaj, who said: "We reiterate as well that the president directed that there should be consequences for anyone found responsible for any wrongdoing that led to the delays in the delivery of books."
But does this mean Motshekga is going? Not necessarily.
Zuma says he will wait for the findings of a presidential team headed by Deputy Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene before making a final decision.
At the Monday press conference, Mantashe - who, as the ANC's third-most senior official, would be consulted by Zuma before a decision to fire the minister was taken - seemed unconvinced that Motshekga should go.
"Sometimes there is a temptation of calling for the expulsion of XYZ even before you actually establish the facts. Let's get that report and take action on the basis of facts and a systematic report," Mantashe said.
But Zuma will have more than just the report on his mind when deciding whether to get rid of Motshekga.
Much is being made - and rightly so - of Motshekga's strategic importance to the president ahead of the ANC's national conference in Mangaung, at which Zuma is certain to stand for a second term as party leader.
In the run-up to the 2007 national conference, Motshekga played a significant role in mobilising support for Zuma in Gauteng - a province that was under the control of a pro-Mbeki leadership.
Now, Zuma needs Motshekga, who is also president of the ANC's Women's League, on his side if he is to be guaranteed the vote of female delegates at Mangaung.
So far, Motshekga has been one of the most vocal supporters of Zuma ruling for a second term.
It is this fact that might explain the ANC Youth League's insistence that she be axed even while it is silent about the roles in the disaster of Limpopo Premier Cassel Mathale and the provincial government.
Mathale, a friend of former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, is regarded as an ally by the organisation.
Besides Mangaung-related considerations, Zuma's decision will also have to take into consideration Motshekga's overall track record since becoming the minister of basic education.
Despite all the problems that continue to engulf education - especially where it concerns black children - there is a sense that, by and large, schools have improved under her tenure.
Even the hard-to-please DA leader and Western Cape Premier Helen Zille sang her praises in June, stating: "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."
But since then the crisis has escalated, putting more pressure on Zuma to act.
However, I reckon that, in this case, Zuma will probably choose to keep Motshekga on.