Another year, another schools minister

Can the Eastern Cape’s new Education Minister, Mahlubandile Qwase, ease the province’s chronic educational woes before next year’s election, when he might be replaced?

Teachers’ unions and political parties are backing him. But he steps into a job that has defeated many other Eastern Cape politicians: he has had six predecessors, including sacked premier Nosimo Balindlela, each with a ministerial lifespan of just over a year.

Although the province’s matric results stand between South Africa’s best and worst, at between 40% and 50%, the senior certificate examination is no benchmark.

According to the Rhodes University-based Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM), dropout rates in the Eastern Cape were about 22% in grades 10 and 11 in 2006. There is evidence of learners leaving in droves for greener pastures in the Western Cape.

More than half the posts in the education department are vacant; millions of rands allocated to its budget go unspent each year because of a skills deficit, fraud and corruption; many teachers’ posts are unfilled; there is persistent late delivery of learning materials to schools; and the school nutrition programme has collapsed.

The PSAM puts the vacancy rate in the Eastern Cape at 55,5%, with head-office vacancies at 64,5% and unfilled posts in some districts 82%.

Conceding he has a daunting task, Qwase told the Mail & Guardian he also has a turnaround strategy.

He said the department’s major downfall has been its inability to spend its budget, which has grown steadily from R12,9-billion in 2006/07 to R20,2-billion for 2010/11.

Insiders say the problems started with the first provincial budget in 1994. There was a gross under­estimation of need, so there has been a shortfall from the outset.

Qwase said that getting people with suitable skills to stay in strategic positions in the department has been difficult. The department has had several heads since 1994.

His top priority, he said, is to streamline the finance department so that it produces clean, audited statements.

“Over the years our financials have all had disclaimers. This reflects badly on us, and in the worst scenario the money goes back to the treasury,” he said.

To improve matric results, Qwase said, his strategy will target under-performing schools. Technical experts have been roped in to help clear school infrastructure backlogs.

There are also plans to increase the learners’ transport budget to cater for fuel-price hikes, fix the school nutrition programme, deliver furniture to schools and ensure learning materials reach schools before they open.

Teachers’ union representatives and the political opposition in the province approve of Qwase’s appointment, pointing out that he chaired the legislature education committee for many years.

But they said he will fail unless he takes unpopular decisions, including cutting dead wood from his department.

And they expressed doubts that, with elections round the corner, he will have time to carry through his strategy.

“The first thing he needs to do is to perform a staff audit, so that he can place people in the right positions and address teacher vacancies,” said the United Democratic Movement’s Thanduxolo Sogoni.

More importantly, Qwase has to calm relations between his department and the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), which has regularly attacked the department’s shortcomings.

Sadtu’s provincial spokesperson, Mxolisi Dimasa, pledged the union’s support for Qwase. But he said that if the minister failed to tackle inefficiencies, stemming mainly from flawed appointments, “his term is bound to yield nothing”.

Thabo Mohlala

Thabo Mohlala

Thabo reports for the Teacher newspaper, a Mail & Guardian monthly publication. Apart from covering education stories, he also writes across other beats. He enjoys reading and is an avid soccer and athletics fanatic. Thabo harbours a dream of writing a book. Read more from Thabo Mohlala

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