If education really is SA's top priority, it's clear what needs to be done. We need a new education minister, writes Faranaaz Parker.
Last week I stood in a queue at the supermarket and waited as the young woman behind the till painstakingly tried to tally the coupons the person ahead of me had handed to her – 10 of them, each with a value of R4. We waited, dumbstruck, as she counted in fours and got stuck at 28, then 32.
It was a painful reminder of the challenges we’re up against when it comes to ensuring that all South Africans have access to a certain standard of education.
You don’t get a job at a supermarket chain without matric. But how do you pass matric without knowing immediately, as even those of us who had access to mediocre schools do, that 10 fours are 40?
The incident made me angry all over again at the shambolic state of the basic education department, as it struggles to get textbooks and workbooks to poor students in rural Limpopo, just another sign that South Africa is consigning its most vulnerable and disadvantaged to lives of less opportunity.
As the clamour to have Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga fired rises, with both high ranking NEC members and youth league members calling for her head, many are wondering what kind of a person will be needed to step in and rescue young people from the failures of the state.
One would have expected that the country's education, which in President Jacob Zuma’s words is the "apex" of government’s priorities, would be governed by a department gifted with the most brilliant public servant leading its ranks, with a cadre of assistants, all of them straight as an arrow and twice as sharp.
But Motshekga has performed poorly and surrounded herself with the wrong people. The head of the intervention team sent to resolve Limpopo's textbook troubles was removed from his position for reasons that remain unclear.
There is evidence that Motshekga knew about the impending textbook crisis last year but did little to head it off. As the evidence of a crisis began to mount, she reacted with defiance in court and defensiveness in public.
She appointed former higher education DG Mary Metcalfe to investigate the situation on the ground but rubbished the report after its findings were made public, saying it was "inaccurate".
The minister, who famously gave herself an eight out of 10 when asked to rate her performance, has also managed to alienate herself from both educators and NGOs working in the sector, the very people that the state is always calling on to partner with it.
Last week she warned principals not to speak to the media about education problems in Limpopo schools. She apparently kept her distance at a recent South African Human Rights Commission event, rather than mingling with the small group of education stakeholders in attendance.
An open letter from a group of NGOs asking for a meeting to help find strategic solutions to the systemic problems plaguing the department went unanswered. "We haven't received a response to our open letter to her [and] her office hasn't come back to confirm a meeting," said Zeenat Sujee, an attorney at the Legal Resources Centre, which co-signed the letter.
Blind to the crisis
Much of the public ire aimed at Motshekga, it seems, might have been averted had she acknowledged the criticism levelled at her department.
"If she had to come on TV and acknowledged [the problem], and just taken responsibility for the crisis, people wouldn't have come down so harshly on her. The whole country can see there's a crisis but her," Sujee added.
Mark Heywood, the executive director of Section 27, said what's needed "is an activist minister who admits to the scale and the depth of the problems, who accepts his or her own responsibilities of leadership but who understands that the best leadership would be to pull together the best resources and the best people in the country to implement a plan to improve basic education".
Motshekga spent more than a decade as a teacher and a lecturer, so it's disappointing that she now seems so far removed from the realities at public schools.
Who you gonna call?
The presidency has dismissed rumours that another Cabinet reshuffle may be in the works. But if education really is the government’s top priority it’s clear what needs to be done. South Africa needs a new education minister.
DA spokesperson for education Annette Lovemore speculated that a new basic education minister would need to accept that "the buck does indeed stop with him or her".
"Someone who fully accepts his or her likely lack of expertise and surrounds [themselves] with expert advisors," she said.
Perhaps it's time to see the return of Barbara Hogan, she ventured. Hogan was the capable caretaker minister for the health department after the death of former health minster Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, tasked with turning around the country’s deplorable stance on HIV.
Since some twitter denizens have taken to referring to Motshekga as “the Manto Tshabalala-Msimang of the Zuma era,” perhaps a return for Hogan would be apt.
But if you ask civil society what kind of minister the education department deserves, one name in particular comes up again and again as an example of good leadership. Aaron Motsoaledi.
The health minister has won over doctors and NGOs with his consultative approach, ambitious plans, clean audits and cost-saving procurement process. His passionate public speaking and propensity for tackling scandal head-on has also earned him kudos. Calling for unqualified hospital CEOs to be replaced — and putting in place the processes to do so — didn't hurt either.
Doron Isaacs, deputy general secretary of Equal Education, has nothing but praise for Motsoaledi.
"He’s creative. He's doesn't have a bureaucratic mindset, he has a problem-solving mindset. He's not imprisoned by precedent and worn-out traditions and processes. He thinks about problems and relies on evidence but also on common sense," he said.
Isaacs said that while Motsoaledi had not provided any "magic solutions" to the problems in healthcare, there were no doubts about the fact that he was working very hard.
"You have someone who you feel is working in this toxic environment but he's doing his best. You can't really expect more than that," he said. But in many ways, Isaacs said, Motshekga's job is more difficult than Motsoaledi's and would prove challenging to any minister.
"Education globally is a debate. It's not like HIV where there's very settled science on how to approach it. There needs to be the intellectual depth to engage with unresolved issues."
Motsoaledi of course is not going anywhere. The health department has its own demons and his long-term goal of preparing the country for universal healthcare coverage, through the national health insurance scheme, needs long vision and a steady hand. But he stands as an exemplar for the kind of minister South Africans need in education.
Meanwhile, back at home affairs
Another of the country’s most effective civil servants, who could provide some clues about the qualities needed in an education minister, is soon to be out of the running. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, recently elected to chair the African Union Commission, has been credited with turning around the department of home affairs, once dismissed as a "cesspool of corruption and incompetence".
How did Dlamini-Zuma turn the department into the well-oiled machine it is now? She started by recruiting a rock solid deputy minister and director general and hiring skilled technicians and front-line staff, then implemented strict internal controls for finance and supply management, and constant collaboration with oversight committees and other major players.
Dlamini-Zuma’s work ethic could provide a powerful playbook for anyone contemplating the role of education minister.
Zuma, however is still standing behind Motshekga, a much-needed ally in the run-up to the party’s elective conference, and both are seemingly in denial about the severity of the crisis in Limpopo and the broader education department.
Nelson Mandela famously said that education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world. But too many young South Africans are still powerless.
It was also Mandela who said: "Quitting is leading too."