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Angie Motshekga advertises her failures

Verashni Pillay

The department of basic education has branched out from not delivering textbooks to taking out adverts about its failures, writes Verashni Pillay.

The department of basic education has branched out from not delivering textbooks to taking out adverts about its failures, writes Verashni Pillay.

Shocked and appalled at the state of South Africa's education and schooling? Don't be! If you happened to page through the newspapers on Sunday, past the stories of casual corruption and pedestrian scandal, you would have received a pleasant surprise: a huge advert by the basic education department, assuring us that everything was tip-top in textbook and schools land.

If the department was to be believed in its ad, which no doubt would have cost it an enormous amount of money, the actions of NGOs trying to force the delivery of embarrassingly-overdue textbooks was a "waste of valuable time". And money.

That's right. Section27, which has expended their resources much of the year trying to get the department to deliver textbooks that children should have received in January, was wasting "valuable" time.

See, time is clearly valuable when you're Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga with important things to do: like scoring oneself 8 out of 10 for performance, or using petty delaying tactics to get out of being pinned down in court. But the sort of time wasted by a Limpopo grade 10 learner who had to wait for most of the year for a textbook that was probably her only hope given the abysmal quality of her school and teaching? Not so valuable. 

The department was clearly miffed over yet another court victory for Section27whose court campaigning throughout the year seems to be the only way to get the department to deliver textbooks. In response to Thursday's court embarrassment, the department decided to pick up on the one thing that the judge didn't award in the NGO's favour. 

The ad declares triumphantly that Section27's victory was "hollow" and it had failed in its hope "that the North Gauteng High Court would grant an order against the department … for failing to comply with two previous court orders". Welcome to Angie's world, where it's considered a victory when people fail to make you pay for the mistakes you'll happily admit to. 

Excuse me while I sob all over your insulting advert, Angie. 

Denialism seems to be a textbook response for the worst of our leaders – and yes, pun fully intended. If our children aren't receiving their books on time it's clear there is no similar delay to distributing the politician's guide to problem-solving: blame someone else as loudly as possible. This includes those who are blaming you. Oh and make sure you keep your boss happy by supporting his re-election. 

A quick recap if, like me, you've stopped following the horror that is education news in an attempt to get through the day. 

The Mail & Guardian revealed in December last year that Limpopo pupils starting the new curriculum this year would do so without textbooks. In response, the basic education department under Motshekga acknowledged nothing and did even less. Instead, they began The Blame Game.

The provincial and national education departments blamed each other, and then treasury. By May, children were still without textbooks so Section27, the NGO that is the recipient of Motshekga's wrath in the ad, went to court. They didn't want to, litigation being a messy and long route. But other attempts at remedying the situation were proving fruitless with a department that had no interest in hearing anything that sounded like criticism. 

The textbooks then appeared abandoned en masse on dumpsites, sparking a national outcry. Angie and co blamed, wait for it, unspecified distributors for trying to sabotage the department. Oh and some tenders were found to be dodgy, with relationships allegedly leading back to department officials, seemingly resulting in the whistle blower revealing the news being fired. Meanwhile another NGO, Equal Education, took the department to court for failing to commit to norms and standards for school structures, meaning there was nothing technically wrong with learning in a mud hut under an open sky, while your province underspent its education budget. 

But back to Section27 and their court case: the department missed its first deadline to get kids their textbooks by June 15. Yes, in case you're wondering, that's about halfway through their school year. It was extended and they missed the second deadline too. By July, with many schools still lacking books, Motshekga was still disclaiming any personal accountability. Things have dragged on since then, with textbooks being delivered in dribs and drabs to schools, mostly when Section27 have prodded them into action. 

But! Don't worry! In the ad the department has committed to getting the textbooks to all learners by October 12 and would EVEN, wait for it, throw in for free a sworn statement by October 17 declaring the task done. The same task, of course, that should have been done in December last year, not with just over a month left on the school calendar. 

Indeed throughout the advert there are detailed lists of the gains the department has made in delivering textbooks – 92% delivered they claim, by mid-year. Again, may we point out how meeting a deadline six months late is hardly something to be trumpeting? 

Much of the rest of the ad is spent bemoaning how we're all being super mean in not acknowledging "the enormous nature of the task". Excuse me? We're supposed to give you a get-out-of-jail free card, aka the Schabir Shaik card of the Monopoly pack, because it's hard? You may have noticed that you get the single biggest slice of our country's budget. In the 2012-2013 financial year, basic education's allocation is R152.1-billion – 15% of the national budget. Do something with it.

The ad also makes a big deal of how the department had to "work towards stabilising the situation in Limpopo, a situation that was thrust upon the department", in reference to the disastrous province being placed under administration. The subtext is: we're doing our job fine everywhere else. It's just this one situation that was a huge mess when we were called in, and look how far we've come. 

The department's argument is, of course, totally misleading. A national survey earlier this year showed that the problems in our schools are not just about textbooks and it's not just confined to Limpopo. The availability of schoolbooks varies wildly across South Africa's nine provinces, curriculum coverage in many classrooms is minimal, and less than half of the country's schools are adequately funded. 

And as this dysfunctional school year staggers to a close, it appears the fun is about to start all over again. Limpopo schools may not get the textbooks they need for 2013 thanks to a price war. It's like Groundhog Day except with a female lead, who never seems to learn her lesson.

Instead Angie wins the prize for her utterly tone-deaf responses to South Africans' dismay over our disastrous education. She reacts with arrogance, blame shifting, and now this – a disingenuous and patronising advert; a one-way communication that invites no discussion or dissent. Just like her and her department.

  • Verashni is the deputy editor of the M&G online. You can read her column here, and follow her on Twitter here.

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