Revising our government structures might be an option, but the real problem lies with people, writes Eusebius McKaiser.
The state's failure to deliver textbooks in Limpopo is well documented. But a simple question remains: Where does the political buck stop when a province fails to deliver?
On the one hand, delivery is the duty of the provincial government. On the other, the national government invoked a constitutional provision, section 100(b), to take control of provincial administration. But, despite that and the state's promises in court, textbooks have still not reached every pupil.
The constitutional and political questions that must be settled are: What does the principle of co-operative governance really mean? Is it a hindrance to accountability? Is the three-tier system of government suited to service delivery?
If the textbook saga is anything to go by, the three-tier system does not enhance accountability. In fact, it has become a handy excuse, the wall behind which political principals hide. It undermines responsive government because national and provincial departments simply accuse each other of irresponsibility.
The adviser to the minister of basic education, Panyaza Lesufi, told me that the national department is hamstrung by low co-operation in Limpopo. Thus he implied, in part, that calls for the minister to resign are inappropriate.
The three tiers of government do not imply a neat separation of responsibility. In the Inter-governmental Relations Framework Act (2005) there are clear, intricate oversight and supervision mechanisms. Perhaps because of a lack of familiarity with them, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motsheka stated on television that the core of her job was policymaking.
Delivery, by implication, is for other people - a perfect example of co-operative governance being used to avoid responsibility.
Of course, one might sympathise with the national department's woes. Even the more popular health minister, Aaron Motsoaledi, recently found himself fielding hard questions from the Sunday Times about problems with the Eastern Cape health department. He said there was little he could do if the provincial government did not let him help it.
Again, the subtext was clear: do not blame national government, blame provincial government.
To be fair, there are clearly countless incompetent politicians and public servants in our provincial governments and departments, hence the delivery crises. But what, then, does co-operative governance mean in a context of provincial and local incompetence?
The national department has the ultimate legal responsibility for the delivery of textbooks when section 100 of the Constitution is invoked.
This, too, seems to have escaped the minister of basic education.
Our co-operative governance laws, and if necessary the Constitution itself, should be amended to make national departments responsible ab initio for delivery, instead of delegating the responsibility to provinces and hoping for the best. Would that be unfair?
Not at all. Such a clarification of ultimate responsibility would increase the chances of national departments ensuring administrative competence in all spheres of government.
It would also give them the incentive to push hard in the Cabinet for national and presidential powers of appointment to be used to ensure the right officials are appointed provincially and locally.
Such appointments would still be political in nature, but the citizens' right to hold national departments legally accountable should encourage more sensible appointments.
It would also force departments to think more carefully about their systems to ensure that when unavoidable and remotely located governance mistakes happen, early warning systems kick in. In the Limpopo case, for example, the spokesperson for the ministry of basic education, Hope Mokgatlhe, said: "The early-warning system arrived late."
If her political principal had ultimate constitutional responsibility for textbook delivery, I am sure such warning systems would be less idle.
Finally, we must flag a more fundamental debate in the light of the textbook saga. Should we have provinces at all? If so, do we have the right number? Are they appropriately demarcated?
Of course, the ANC has begun this debate internally, but it is a matter of national urgency and wider public interest to reflect on the model of co-operative governance we chose in 1994. This debate should now unfold with greater vigour than we have seen so far.
But, ultimately, we should not fool ourselves. The three-tier system of government did not guarantee that pupils in Limpopo got textbooks and simply redesigning the system will not help. Provincial government is not inherently doomed. The problem is incompetent, corrupt and self-serving politicians and officials, who are in cahoots with corrupt private sector service providers.
We must be careful that we do not change one system - the complex three-tier model - while ignoring the real problem of incompetent and unco-operative bureaucrats and political principals. No governance system is immune to such persons.
Active and watchful citizenship might be our only bulwark against the lack of delivery.
Eusebius McKaiser is an associate at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He also hosts Talk at Nine on Talk Radio 702. Follow him on Twitter @eusebius