When education takes a back seat to politics
Manoeuvring ahead of Mangaung trumps needs of Eastern Cape school children, writes Sibusiso Ngalwa
BASIC Education Minister Angie Motshekga described it as a "horror story" and a "tragedy" in a recent interview with this newspaper.
She painted a picture of a provincial education department in disarray, with scores of pupils without textbooks, because Eastern Cape authorities say they have no money.
The Democratic Alliance, which sees the Eastern Cape as the ANC's soft underbelly that it can exploit as part of its long-term strategy to become the country's future government, has wasted no time in capitalising on the education crisis.
DA leader Helen Zille caused a political storm last month by claiming the Eastern Cape's "education refugees" were fleeing to the Western Cape - where she is premier - to get a better education.
To further highlight the Eastern Cape education crisis, Zille's protégée and the DA's parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko, on Friday walked 12km "in solidarity" with pupils from a rural village in Queenstown who have to walk long distances to school each day because the provincial government cannot provide them with transport.
With the minister admitting to this "horror" and the opposition seeking to exploit it, you would think that the resolution of the crisis would be uppermost in the government's priorities.
Yet, last month, President Jacob Zuma nearly suffered the embarrassment of being ordered by the High Court in Bhisho to implement what was already a cabinet decision on the matter.
Two NGOs, the Save Our Schools Community (Sosac) and the Catholic Institute of Education (CIE) had taken the government to court to compel Zuma and Motshekga to enforce a long-standing cabinet decision to take over the administration of the crisis-prone Eastern Cape Education Department.
But an out-of-court settlement reached by the NGOs and government lawyers averted the court ruling and meant the government would now take over the administration of the department in terms of section 100(1)(b) of the constitution.
That it had to come to this is an embarrassment on its own.
In March last year, the cabinet decided to take over the administration of the department when it became clear that things were falling apart. But instead of carrying out the decision, the government has spent much of the past year pussyfooting around the issue for fear of offending the sensitive provincial ANC and government leadership who felt undermined by the intervention.
In sharp contrast to the firm action taken by the government after several departments in Limpopo were put under national administration, Zuma's government has been soft on the Eastern Cape Education Department.
Why the difference in approach? Could it have to do with the fact that Limpopo, under premier Cassel Mathale - a close friend and political ally of suspended ANC Youth League president Julius Malema - is opposed to Zuma's second-term bid, while the Eastern Cape is one of the provinces the president hopes to win over to his campaign?
Instead of insisting that Motshekga takes over the administration of the province, as provided for in the constitution, the president allowed the provincial government and provincial department's superintendent-general, Modidima Mannya, to frustrate her efforts.
A senior national Education Department official sent by Motshekga to run the provincial department had to return to Pretoria after being accused of offending local officials. This effectively left administrative power back in the hands of the very person many accuse of being a stumbling block to the solution of the crisis, Mannya.
Despite Motshekga making it clear that she believed Mannya should go, he has remained in office, largely because of the protection he gets from provincial politicians. Even a crippling strike by teacher union Sadtu at the beginning of the year could not convince provincial politicians to let go of him.
Had Zuma been as decisive as he has been over the Limpopo intervention, he would have told his Eastern Cape comrades to respect Motshekga's role.
But, at a meeting with provincial ANC alliance structures late last year, Motshekga was told, in front of the president, to back off.
Provincial politicians made it clear that Mannya was going nowhere and insisted that the department continues to exercise some of the powers that had now been taken over by the national government.
Zuma, instead of putting his foot down, backtracked and agreed to the formation of a "five a side" team of national ministers and local MECs to try to find common ground.
This decision undermined the cabinet and the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), which had felt the need for the Eastern Cape Education Department to be rescued under section 100(1)(b) of the constitution.
Schoolgoing children in the province suffered as a result.
Teachers went on a prolonged strike to demand the reinstatement of 6000 temporary teachers whose services were terminated by the provincial department. Mannya has yet to reinstate the temporary teachers, despite being ordered to do so by the courts.
The outcome, in the Sosac/CIE case, has proved that the "five a side" was unnecessary and a waste of time. If anything, it has failed dismally.
Motshekga could not hide her frustration over the lack of support for her intervention. "We have expressed to cabinet the extreme frustration of seeing things collapse in front of you, when you know things can be corrected ... And then you have adults sacrificing the future of kids for legal niceties and technicalities," she told this newspaper last month.
In terms of the memorandum of understanding signed with the provincial government following the announcement of the intervention last year, it was made clear that Motshekga would "take over all the statutory obligations and functions conferred on the provincial authorities" by the constitution.
Furthermore, she was to "withdraw and reallocate all administrative delegations under the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) ... the Public Service Act, education laws and any other legislation applicable to the provision and administration of school education in the Eastern Cape".
But political considerations ahead of the ANC's elective national conference to be held in Mangaung, Free State, later this year appear to have trumped the needs of thousands of poor Eastern Cape school children who depend on the government for their education.
Cabinet has now "restated" that Motshekga has full control and that if "the Eastern Cape wants to take us to court, then let them take us to court".
While this change in stance has to be welcomed, it is an indictment on Zuma's leadership that it has taken this long for the government to do the right thing, seemingly out of fear of losing the Eastern Cape's backing in Mangaung later this year.