Textbooks: Soobrayan is 'happy to be investigated'
Basic education director general Bobby Soobrayan has blamed budgetary constraints and pupil data problems for the department's failures.
If he is the fall guy he "hasn't fallen" yet, says a resolute Bobby Soobrayan, following the presidential task team's recommendation of the investigation of his role in the Limpopo textbook debacle.
How do you feel about the sugges-tion you be investigated by the Public Service Commission?
I am happy that the matter has been referred to the commission because, given its credibility, it will give me an opportunity to respond to whatever allegations have been made. I have not seen the full [presidential task team's] report, so I am not clear exactly what the findings are based on. I do not understand why it [the publisher's letter to Soobrayan in December warning that textbooks had not yet been ordered] is a big issue. When [the letter] came, it was common cause that there was a problem with the supply of learner and teacher support material [such as textbooks] in the province. You will recall that the [section 100(1)(b)] intervention was declared in December and the reason was that there were systemic problems in five departments, including budgetary problems. The second part [of the allegations against him in the presidential report] speaks about my "inaction" from December. I will produce information and evidence that show that my conduct after intervention was far from inactive. We worked very hard to ensure that things were fixed to place the orders. You cannot just decide in a day to order books. You have to understand what pupils there are in the system – how many there are in each grade and class.
It is now clear that there were warning signs before December that Limpopo would not buy textbooks. What did the national department do?
Indeed, the Limpopo education department raised the issue itself. The issue it raised was budgetary. It raised the problem with the treasury. My minister was also informed. Budgetary issues cannot be dealt with by our department; it is a question for the treasury.
Did the treasury deal with it adequately?
We will leave that open.
The report conspicuously lacks comment on any political leader. Do you think there are others who should be investigated?
It is not up to me to say. I have not seen the full report, so I do not know whether any culpability could be pointed at anyone else. I do not want to point fingers at anyone else. I want everyone to respect my rights. I do not want to be tried in the media and I certainly would not want to do that to anyone else.
When the section 100(1)(b) intervention was declared last December, what did you understand to be your specific mandate?
Look, it is difficult to say what my specific role was as director general. [In such an intervention] the minister appoints an accounting officer in the province. That accounting officer is primarily responsible for the department. As director general, in supporting the minister I support whatever intervention is made. In that way, I get involved in the process, but I am not the accounting officer of the [provincial] department. I am the accounting officer of the national department. The administrator was the accounting officer in the province. I support him. I think I provided [enough support, even if] the task team seems to have come to a different conclusion. My reading of that is that [the report] is not conclusive.
A legal opinion obtained by the basic education department in January recommended that the EduSolutions contract be cancel-led. Why was it cancelled only in April?
It was clear from our legal advice that you cannot ignore an existing contract. [We found out that] even if [I] had the powers to procure, there was a contract in place that I could not ignore. Our legal advice was to terminate the contract. However, [it] needed to be terminated by the [relevant] person because you cannot terminate a contract that you haven't been party to. We then worked with the provincial department [to terminate it].
How did the wrangle between the department and EduSolutions contribute to the delay in procuring textbooks?
That matter is sub judice, so I do not want to comment on it in too much detail. Remember, work went on while the EduSolutions contract was [still] in place. It was not that we could order and the only reason we did not order was because there was a contract with EduSolutions. [The lack of data on pupils] was a huge problem. Capacity in the [provincial] department had been dismantled completely because EduSolutions had taken over all those things. EduSolutions refused to provide the data, first because it had not been paid and second because it knew that its contract was going to be terminated, so it was not in its interest to provide the data. The issue for me is not EduSolutions, [but that] any department ought to have the [data on pupils]. You cannot have the data with a service provider, because anything can happen with a service provider.
There have been reports about personal links between you and EduSolutions and you have also referred to your "historical associations". Did this put you in a position to do favours for EduSolutions?
I do not know what links I have with EduSolutions. I know the people in EduSolutions – they are old colleagues of mine. But the point is that they never got anything from me. They are saying in Limpopo that I delayed the termination of the contract, but eventually it was only I who did [terminate the contract]. I was not even involved in giving it the contract.
What do you think about the finding in the report that the department failed to prioritise textbooks and focused on "addressing issues that would not facilitate the speedy placing of orders"?
I have no idea what those matters are. It could be that we focused on matters unrelated to textbooks, or it could be that we focused on getting the [pupil] data right. If you understand textbook procurement, focusing on the data is not "other matters". You cannot place an order if you do not have the data. It simply says that I focused on other things. I do not know what those other things are. Basically, I cannot comment.
Some have said the report makes you the fall guy. What is your comment?
I do not have anything to suggest that this is the case. I am happy the matter has been referred to the commission. It will give me the opportunity to hear the evidence and defend myself. I am confident [about going to the commission].