If publishers don't reduce textbook prices the provincial education department will withdraw its orders - two months before books are due in schools.
Financial tussles involving the Mpumalanga education department, publishers and distributor EduSolutions could delay the delivery of textbooks to the province's schools for next year.
The Mail & Guardian has learnt that the department is demanding large discounts from publishers and has threatened to withdraw orders EduSolutions placed with publishers last month if they do not reduce prices by 30%.
But publishers say the textbook prices reflected in the national catalogue already include 30% discounts. The national education department negotiated the net prices listed in the catalogue from which schools selected their textbooks.
The department relies on discounts from publishers to finance the three-year delivery and storage contract the department has with EduSolutions.
Mpumalanga's budget for textbooks in 2013 is R257-million. The province has more than one million pupils in 1 821 public schools and it needs to buy new textbooks for pupils in grades four, five, six and 11 for the new curriculum.
The orders are supposed to be finalised this month, but the dispute is threatening to create delays down the line.
"[The department's] starting of disputes only now — after EduSolutions has ordered — is stalling procurement," said a publisher who requested anonymity. "It means the process will only start once all disputes have been resolved."
A publisher at another group said: "The [further] 30% discounts Mpumalanga is demanding are impossible. Things have turned into a dispute holding up processes."
The publisher said although most provinces were now requesting some discounts, they were not demanding "impossible discounts" and "making threats". Mpumalanga was "insisting on an additional 30% discount 'as per tradition'. The industry cannot afford that."
Brian Wafawarowa, executive director of the Publishing Association of South Africa, confirmed the dispute between Mpumalanga and publishers.
"I don't see any publisher affording another 30% discount," he said.
Time is running out
"It's unprecedented that a provincial department makes a threat to withdraw orders if publishers do not offer additional discounts. Time is running out and that will have a direct impact on the delivery of textbooks to schools."
Panyaza Lesufi, national department spokesperson, would not say if the department would intervene and did not answer the M&G's questions about the prices it had negotiated.
The Democratic Alliance in Mpumalanga has been campaigning for the review of EduSolutions's contract for several months. James Masango, its education spokesperson in the province, said the department's demand for extra discounts was driven by the contract it had with the controversial company.
He accused EduSolutions of over-charging the department. "Now that there are no clear discounts, the department will need additional money for EduSolutions, which they have not budgeted for."
EduSolutions spokesperson Themba Ndlovu said the problem was that discounts negotiated by the national department did not benefit the provinces. "Now that there are no discounts, I honestly do not know where [the Mpumalanga department] will get money for deliveries and warehousing," he said.
Departmental spokesperson Jasper Zwane denied its actions would cause delivery delays or that the department had threatened to cancel orders with publishers. "It is a generally accepted principle that provinces can negotiate for further discounts," he said.
See our special report on the textbooks crisis at www.mg.co.za/curriculum