An open letter to the minister of education

Dear Minister Pandor

In January 2006, you appointed me to a ministerial committee on literacy. This was a pleasant surprise. While I had had a long engagement with the department in policy and planning work, I had also been a stern critic of its tendentious statistics on Abet [adult basic education and training].

I was appointed lead writer of the committee’s report, which was approved by the Cabinet in November 2006. The Cabinet then asked for a detailed operational plan and I was the sole writer of this (helped by the rest of the committee with editorial comments). This plan was approved by the Cabinet in August 2007, the month in which I was seconded from my university to the department to help set up the campaign.

As you are aware, I had raised concerns as early as November 2006 with the chairperson of the ministerial committee, Dr Cassius Lubisi, that the Department of Education representative on the committee—Vernon Jacobs—was, in total secrecy from the committee, proposing plans to the department that were fundamentally different from the Cabinet-approved report and later operational plan. I wrote to you in July and stated that I would not accept secondment because of the way in which this official and others in your department were blocking the implementation of this plan.

Within days you called a meeting with me, one of my colleagues in secondment, Professor Veronica McKay from Unisa, Director General Duncan Hindle, Deputy Director General Gugu Ndebele, Deputy Minister Enver Surty and your adviser, Martin Mulcahy. At that meeting you urged me to reconsider and accept the secondment. You and your DG promised that the blockages would be removed (and Mr Jacobs was identified as the main blockage).

Unfortunately, my experience, shared by my seconded colleagues, was of a thoroughly disabling environment in which virtually every request for resources and implementation of the scheduled steps in the operational plan was blocked, ignored or misrepresented. You say in your recent interview with Ferial Haffajee [”We will intervene”, February 15] that the “mark of good leadership is to be able to ensure sustainability after you have left”, implying that I was in a leadership position. In fact, I was never allowed any decision-making powers.

Professor McKay, who undertook responsibility for materials development, was so disillusioned that she returned to her Unisa offices where, with enormous effort, she gathered a writing team together and prepared an excellent set of materials in spite of the department’s lack of support and often deliberate stalling.

My own situation was far worse. I had the responsibility for dealing with setting up the governance, management, administrative and communicative structures and processes. Yet, unknown to me, and while I was being blocked at every turn, Jacobs was secretly working on an alternative campaign structure that involved a campaign secretariat/unit embedded within the department (contrary to the Cabinet-approved report and the plan’s recommendations). The duplicity of this parallel secret planning is staggering. It was shared by chief director Mzwandile Matthews, Ndebele, chief finance officer Phillip Benade and Hindle. All of these officials acted in bad faith.

Nevertheless, I wish the campaign well. I put my heart and soul into conceiving, planning and budgeting it, and identifying key actors. I would never dispute your right to change your mind about the original plan and instruct your officials accordingly. But this should have been done honestly and transparently. I believe that the Cabinet approved a plan the implementation of which was comprehensively corrupted. I resigned because I was loyal to you and the Cabinet-approved plan; and could not, with integrity, continue with this charade.

I believe that you have been kept ignorant of all this. I do not want to believe you would have acted in bad faith. Some of your public utterances suggest that you have not been kept in the loop. I sincerely ask you: Minister of Education, whom should you be ministering to? Officials who have neutered an innovative plan and who effectively have treated you, the Cabinet and the ministerial committee with contempt? Or to the millions of illiterate people of South Africa whom you have sworn to serve? When will somebody put them first?

John Aitchison

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