Fiddling the books
'There are 26000 shebeens in South Africa," mused a friend the other day, "and every week a major breweries company successfully delivers crates of liquor to every one of them."
He continues: "There are also 26000 schools in this country, and yet we cannot deliver textbooks to all of them. We do not have a skills crisis."
I laughed, and then I cried, for in this seemingly absurd comparison there was more than a grape of truth. So what explains this reality that we can deliver beer to shebeens but not textbooks to schools?
To state the obvious, the company makes money out of the delivery of beers. If it does not deliver, it does not get money. Imagine if this principle were applied in education. The textbook delivery company does not get a cent unless it can prove that it successfully delivered the right textbooks in the right amounts to the right schools at the right time - namely, before the school year even starts. The problem will go away.
You are not even asking the liquor company to care deeply about the client, though it would be nice if textbook companies were motivated to promote learning among the youth. You deliver a service to the standards set by the client, and you get your money. Imagine if teachers were paid in relation to the results of their pupils. Your pupils can read and write? Collect your payment at the end of the month.
Of course this is not going to happen because South Africans have refined the art of deflecting blame to someone else, even if that person has been dead for 40 years, as is the case with HF Verwoerd.
But there is something else that would happen if the breweries in question did not deliver the beer; the client would go elsewhere with their money - to the competition.
Imagine the schools were given their allocation of textbook monies directly, and they could purchase textbooks from the local supplier themselves.
Or, the textbook companies would have to come to the school and make the case to supply the textbooks directly to the client. Once again, the problem could potentially be solved.
This also will not happen because textbooks represent the new site of struggle, if you forgive a perverse application of a once progressive language.
If schools could purchase their own textbooks, you would destroy a corrupt class of budding millionaires waiting in the supply-chain line to rip off the state and enrich themselves.
Here is a bitter irony: some of the same comrades who worked in the Department of Education in the early years of democracy then lambasted publishers for making money from textbooks, and tried to sell the crooked idea that under outcomes-based education, schools did not need textbooks since learning materials should be developed from the contexts of learning.
Those former comrades are now the multimillionaire owners and CEOs of quasi-private textbook companies infuriated by recent exposés of alleged incompetence and corruption in the delivery of these learning materials. The chickens have come home to roost.
The problem precedes the 1990s. It is common knowledge that many white bureaucrats in the former race-based education system would write school textbooks themselves and deliver them to publishing houses, to then retire as millionaires. By then restricting "the list" of official texts from which a school could order their prescribed books, the corrupt bureaucrat could ensure an instant "bestseller".
One university gained notoriety by condoning the practice of professors writing the textbooks to support study guides for their own courses.
Unsuspecting students had to buy these expensive books from the publishers, and so made their professors rich.
In a further act of greed, the professors would slightly revise the textbooks every year in a fresh edition so that new students could not purchase the previous years' textbooks at a reduced price.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with professors writing textbooks to be used in their classes; but when that practice is unregulated by the employer, and when what is at stake is not 15 students in a philosophy class but 30000 students in a sociology class, then the table is laid for massive corruption.
Rather than commissioning four or five hasty reports in a clumsy attempt to put out the flames that resulted from the textbook scandal in Limpopo province, government should rather commission a more comprehensive study of the textbook industry.
The nexus of textbooks and money should be thoroughly investigated for corruption.
The use of independent, private companies with a track-record of success should be non-negotiable.
The involvement of former government employees or political operatives in this industry must be stopped.
Placing the power for purchasing textbooks in the hands of the schools should be considered. Imposing a strong system of accountability on textbook providers is essential - your contract should contain a specific clause that you do not get paid, or you risk a massive financial penalty for non-delivery or partial delivery of textbooks.
Of course, ministers of state should be held accountable, and resigning is the honourable thing to do. But it will not solve the much deeper problem of deeply vested interests in the textbook industry in which, I am dead certain, some very powerful people in this country have a silent stake.