/ 10 June 1994

Just the woman for the job

With her long red hair and wholesome appearance, Mary Metcalfe would not look out of place in a country kitchen, the children and kittens playing around her skirts.

Instead, the MEC for education in the PWV is ensconced somewhere near the top of a high-rise building in the centre of Johannesburg — the regional government’s temporary headquarters — with several phones ringing in her ear. As regional education “minister” in the richest, most populated region which is also home to the national government, her position is a powerful one.

What happens in education in the PWV is likely to determine to a large extent what happens in the rest of the country. And Metcalfe, a strong believer in grassroots-up governance, is not about to wait around for national directives.

Already, the policy most likely to determine the shape of the new education and training department emanates from the ANC’s PWV-based Centre for Education Policy Development, from where Metcalfe (39) comes. Born in Zimbabwe, she graduated from a teacher college in Bulawayo and worked as a remedial teacher. She came to South Africa in 1978 and continued to study and teach remedial education.

She lectured at the Johannesburg College of Education, obtained her Masters degree at Wits University in 1985 and taught in the education department there until she joined the CEPD last year. In the 1980s she ran a detainees education support group which became Detainees Parent’s Support Group.

She became active in the ANC in 1990 and has been responsible for the education portfolio in the region since 1992. Familiar with hard work, Metcalfe, mother of two small children, is used to getting up at 4am every morning and is already comfortably immersed in plans, schedules, meetings and interviews.

But as a humble, down-to-earth she seems slightly at odds with her new high-profile position. “I just have to learn to delegate,” she says, greeting her new secretary warmly, while her personal assistant, former Sasco national president Robinson Ramaite, tries to sort out the chaos of the recent move, nearby.

Metcalfe’s first priority is to supervise the daunting task of creating a new department out of four existing ones in the province: the Transvaal Education Department, Department of Education and Training, House of Representatives and House of Delegates. Metcalfe’s team has to work closely with existing departments, particularly for crisis management purposes, and at the same time lay the foundations of transparency, efficiency and accountability for a new department.

“We need a much more responsive bureaucracy”, she says. A strategic management team of education experts has been appointed on a short-term contract basis to help restructure a new department “hopefully by the end of the year”.

The fact that bureaucrats from existing departments are only just getting to know each other in this process is testimony to the ludicrous fragmentation of the past, she says. Top of the list is stimulating community participation in schools.

“We want to start immediately getting teachers teaching and students learning. We want to see in every area reconstruction and development conferences in education taking place to plan for the immediate rehabilitation of schools and setting up of parent-teacher-student associations. In this way, people will come together.”

There are plans afoot for clean-up operations, tree-planting, renaming and “handing over” ceremonies at schools. ‘We want people to say these are our schools, like when the airforce flew overhead at the inaugauration and suddenly we could say ‘this is our airforce’.”

One of the biggest challenges, says Metcalfe, is to bring parents, who have stayed outside for so long, back into the fold. “Catch-up” programmes for students are in the pipeline, including those for members of the soon-to-be- disbanded self-defence units in the East Rand and Vaal townships.

Metcalfe wants to get all school stakeholders to commit to early registration, “so we know what to expect for next year”. A regional education and training forum for the PWV is in the process of being put together. Similar structures have evolved in the Western and Eastern Cape and Free State.

Metcalfe believes these regional forums will play a vital role in ensuring that education policy is shaped by stakeholders at all levels and is not the exclusive domain of the National Education and Training Forum. The drawing up of new educational policy is likely to be a fairly smooth, process, predicts Metcalfe, noting that a fair amount of consensus already exists. While federalists support a common qualifications system and minimum wage for teachers, the ANC supports the devolution of power in education.

Stakeholders, she says, “will be finding a new path together.” She stresses the need for an integrated approach to the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). “You can do what you want in education but when a child’s living conditions are appalling then it’s not going to help.” The regions, she says, “must get going with the RDP”.

She talks of returning to her first, love one day — teaching. But it will be a long tine before anyone allows her to vacate her post. There’s work to be done and Metcalfe is — without doubt — the person to do it.