Nene is no Tom Cruise, even if his mission is impossible

Nene's "different" structure failed to hide the fact that this new finance minister had nothing much extra to offer anyone in search of any high-quality education or training. (David Harrison, M&G)

Nene's "different" structure failed to hide the fact that this new finance minister had nothing much extra to offer anyone in search of any high-quality education or training. (David Harrison, M&G)


Now you see it, now you don’t. 

But is what you do see accurate, true and possible; or is what you don’t see imprecise, false or even remotely achievable? And, if you reverse that question, how many of the country’s about 50-million people could answer either of them?

Outlining the priorities, policies, rationality and arguments centred on his allocations to education in his budget speech to Parliament on Wednesday afternoon this week, Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene appeared to have chosen a brilliant actor as his role model.

Tom Cruise and his Mission: Impossible movies came immediately to mind as Nene was speaking. The minister’s choice of the roles to play and the movie to screen riveted Parliament: Cruise is one of Hollywood’s finest of the silver screen’s techno-artists. 

Himself a multi-billionaire, his acting skills in all these megabillion-dollar blockbusters, resemble a mirror whose reflections are alternately sharp identikit, reversible, distorting or obscure. 

Seconds into his deservedly Oscar-winning performance, Nene timidly gave MPs a history lesson. Since 1994, the ANC government has “improved access to schools” but “there are still schools without sanitation”. Wow!   

Among the 12-million school pupils in South Africa, these two history lessons would have come as no news at all to about 10.5-million – an exceptionally conservative estimate. 

But since 1994, nearly all their parents, caregivers or custodians have already learned, digested and profoundly understood these lessons.

A minute or so later, Nene metamorphosed from teacher into magician, when he figuratively produced a mirror. This reflected what Cabinet has specified as the new fiscal year’s nine strategic priorities. 

And this year’s winner among the nine is ... Not education

Nothing explicit about education appeared in the mirror. Which means education, from top to bottom, never had a chance of winning anything much at all.

Some “good effort” Oscar awards, though unmentioned by Nene, went to a few university medical schools and other employees. 

But total losers among the nine priority areas were the country’s 85% of poorest public schools – for knee-capping them at every whim of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union. 

Strong contenders for Oscars went to private investment in, and ownership of, universities, the 50 technical vocational education and training colleges, and all schools – public and private.

“Tough luck” is what the Cabinet’s view of the public education institutions seems to be. 

Tough indeed – because Nene right then pressed the button that fired cruise missiles at the country’s 26 universities, the colleges, 24 000 public schools, thousands of public adult learning centres and innumerable crèches.

Nene launched those missiles while seamlessly transforming himself into George W Bush, his sleep nightmarishly disturbed by weapons of mass destruction.

But Nene had pre-armed himself – with two far more experienced skilled advisers for his speech.

He first cautioned the House about a “weighty set of documents and explanatory papers”.

In reality, these weigh well under any matric exam candidate’s full set of textbooks – assuming that the candidate personally receives all of them for free, as the Constitution requires for basic education (up to grade nine).

Nene then invoked his predecessors. Pravin Gordhan and Trevor Manuel had told him some MPs “feel that the burden of after-hours’ reading is excessive”. 

Presumably then, not all of them are doing all this reading. If so, MPs are therefore reading less than one humanities student needs to in the first year of university – and a borderline-passing student too.

“Thankfully, their advice to me,” Nene told the House, was that Manuel and Gordhan “oversaw ... the design of these instruments of accountability”. 

This meant he did not “have to incorporate” everything into his budget speech. 

How nervous of Nene to have blanketed himself with his predecessors’ advice. And how clever of Trevor but pathetic of Pravin for allowing the bedbugs in Nene’s own blankets to bite anyone.

Those bedbugs bit none of these three politicians, though. They sliced their way through millions of others, however.

Few shack-dwellers in Gauteng’s Diepsloot, Cape Town’s Khayelitsha and anywhere else would have been hooting with laughter at these thigh-slappers from this satirically comic trio, though.

The recipients of Nene’s largesse received about R203-billion for basic education. Because of its gaping inadequacy, this amount resembles the dangerous special effects in thrilling action movies. 

Their DVD versions’ bonus material shows stuff-ups with results that range from no harm done to any of the stunt people, and then through farcical to fatal for them.

Nene had earlier played Bush, when he recommended all that wearisome after-hours study to MPs for their “further attention” – because it’s “somewhat differently structured” now.

This sounded like Bush recommending that 9/11 receive some after-hours leisurely perusal by the country’s Congress, Senate, Pentagon, FBI, CIA and New York police. As Michael Moore’s renowned documentary suggests, this conveniently diverted public attention from the ongoing mystery of who really masterminded the assault that slaughtered nearly 3 000 people.

In other words, Nene’s “different” structure failed to hide the fact that this new finance minister had nothing much extra to offer anyone in search of any high-quality education or training. 

This is catastrophic for all education – after Nene’s nine months of sitting on his volcanic seat, which he presumably spent finding a highly skilled task team to write his speech and to read the 2015/16 budget’s “weighty” documents and papers.

Urgently but courteously, about 50-million people must call Nene back for another word from them, this time in a Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter ministerial persona. 

“Love your suit,” we need to observe. 

And then we’ll go on to face dismal futures because of everything else he took away from millions of children and other young people too.

Budget Speech 2015: What it all means. (Deloitte, YouTube)


Total: R266-billion – up from 2014’s R254-billion


  • Total: R28-billion – up from 2014’s R26-billion 
  • Subsidies: R24-billion 
  • Infrastructure: R3.5-billion “proposed”, including R1.6-billion for new universities in Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape 
  • National Student Financial Aid Scheme: R3.3-billion “projected to spend ... on student enrolments at universities and technical vocational training and education colleges”

Skills Development: 

  • Colleges: R9-billion – up from 2014’s R8-billion 
  • Jobs Fund: R1.4-billion “in partnership with the private sector on projects that create new employment, support work-seekers and [help create] more inclusive growth”

Basic Education (grades R to nine): 

  • Total: R203-billion – up from R190-billion in 2014
  • Teachers: “Under Minister [Angie] Motshekga’s oversight, personnel planning for schools is [now] under review, to ensure that leanrer-teacher ratios are maintained at appropriate levels” 
  • Funza Lushaka bursaries for prospective new teachers: R1-billion 
  • School infrastructure: R10-billion “will enable all schools to meet the minimum norms and standards ... by 2016” 
  • School infrastructure backlogs: R2.5-billion “for the replacement of [more than] 500 unsafe or poorly constructed schools, as well as to address water, sanitation and electricity needs” 
  • Teaching and learning materials: R5.4-billion to “print and distribute 5.4-million workbooks ... and each learner in grades R to nine will receive two books per subject” in 2015/16 “in numeracy, literacy, language and life skills” 
  • Public libraries: R1.4-billion “to build and support” these – David Macfarlane
David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane is currently the Mail & Guardian's education editor. He obtained an honours degree in English literature, a fairly unpopular choice among those who'd advised him to study something that would give him a real career and a pension plan. David joined the M&G in the late 1990s. There, the publication's youth – which was nearly everyone except him – also tried to further his education. Since April 2010, he's participated in the largest expansion of education coverage the M&G Media has ever undertaken. He says he's "soon" going on "real annual leave", which will entail "switching off this smart phone the M&G youth told me I needed".   Read more from David Macfarlane


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