Sweet nothings add up to nought, Zille

DA leader Helen Zille. (AFP)

DA leader Helen Zille. (AFP)

Halfway through Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille’s latest billet-doux to Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga is a sentence that perfectly combines the mixture of plain good sense and rampantly dictatorial nonsense that has characterised all her bizarre ministerial wooing over the past month.

“While a minimum [school] infrastructure platform is needed to achieve quality education, it makes more sense to establish ‘guidelines’ than impose rigid ‘norms and standards’,” Zille, who is also the Western Cape premier, wrote in Monday’s “SA Today”, on the DA’s webpage. 

Touchingly headlined “Angie and I”, the piece repeated Zille’s cooing support for a minister she has managed to characterise as besieged by fanatically misguided civil society activists, Equal Education in this case, bent on making her life hell for, well, just the hell of it.

It is the first part of the quoted sentence that comprises the (self-evident) good sense, but where is the logic of the second? Merely apply the same reasoning to anything else in schooling that, in fact, is subject to minimum norms and standards — school funding, say — and the nonsense becomes clear. 

The problems that will follow the promulgation of infrastructure norms have, collectively, their counterpart in the complexities of figuring out how much funding each school should get — and actually getting that funding to them.

Following the 2003 education department review of the costs of schooling, for instance, introducing the essential tool of “quintiles” — five poverty categories into which every state school needed to be slotted — was beset by problems for years (schools put into the wrong quintile, for example). So too was the introduction of no-fee schools: the lack of any state compensation for schools that did not charge fees was the major one.

Yet no one suggested that problematic implementation could even begin to comprise any rationale for turning the funding norms into “guidelines”. Well, of course they didn’t: the pros patently outweighed the cons.

But here Zille has what she seems to think is a trump card — one that impressed her so much when she made it in an earlier epistle that she repeats it almost verbatim in this week’s instalment. 

“ ‘State-of-the-art’ infrastructure norms and standards, which would ‘stretch targets’ in most developing countries, are unachievable, unaffordable and educationally misdirected in our country.”

Two points, Premier. This (again) overlooks the first word in the phrase “minimum norms and standards”. And the “misdirected” Equal Education has not once, in any press statement or court application, sought to dictate or prescribe the content of the norms and standards it wants the minister to promulgate.

But attacking straw targets is just one of the dodgy tactics Zille’s mysterious epistles have displayed. Another is her slippery way with false oppositions. 

Her current document constructs a tenuous either/or between better infrastructure and better teaching: the latter is more important, she says. Patronisingly, and in another phrase that must have pleased her so much the first time that she repeats it here too, she says activists for the former are “misdirected in substance, style and strategy”. Actually, activists generally have better teaching (and learning) squarely in their sights whatever the centre of their campaign is — textbooks, gender-based violence and, yes, infrastructure. But they sensibly limit themselves to what is achievable: training teachers is not within civil society’s domain. 

Finally, for a “misdirected” campaign, Equal Education’s has been resoundingly effective: Motshekga is now under a court order to produce the norms. 

But this, Zille says, “is the one thing I just cannot understand”: Why did Motshekga allow this to happen? The poor wee lass must have been “frog-marched” into it, Zille suggests. But she has “a remedy” to offer her new political amour: just “swallow a spoonful of cement [and] reinforce your backbone”. To this macho drivel, the politest reply might be to agree that Motshekga will indeed need strength now because, fortunately for our children, the Constitution and the courts are a lot firmer on basic education rights than the leader of the opposition is.



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