The basic education department this week welcomed with one hand the much-awaited independent report on textbook deliveries in Limpopo, but sought to undermine it with the other.
At a press briefing on Monday, the department warmly thanked Mary Metcalfe for her team's "verification" report, released the same day. Its brief statement said the report was "comprehensive" and the department would "carefully consider" its findings and recommendations.
But in a move the department has declined to explain, it also published on the same day a much longer, frequently scathing response that accuses the Metcalfe report of straying beyond its terms of reference. In this, the department also repeatedly seeks to exonerate itself from culpability in the Limpopo debacle.
Departmental spokesperson Hope Mokgatlhe said the department would not comment any further on the Metcalfe report until a presidential task team had concluded its investigation. Monday's briefing followed three days of confidential consultation between the department, Metcalfe's team and Section27, the non-government organisation whose legal action in May exposed severe inaccuracies in official delivery statistics.
These closed-door consultations were meant to reach consensus among the three parties on the verification report released on Monday.
Intermittently breaking into bold italics, a red font and capitals, the department's longer response appears to be its working notes for the confidential consultations that preceded the release of Metcalfe's report.
Dated July 16, and consisting of 46 points over eight A4 pages, this response was posted unannounced on the department's website hours after the apparently unanimous Monday briefing by all three parties.
(For the full response, go to mg.co.za/DBEcomments)
In a series of devastating findings, Metcalfe's team found that "only 15% of the books had been delivered [by June 27]", a day before the department had claimed 98% delivery.
Metcalfe's report also warned that "a climate of distrust, anxiety and pressure will contribute to evasion and concealment rather than the frank reporting needed to solve the remaining problems".
But "the draft report … comes to a number of debatable conclusions", the department's lengthy response said in a comment on Metcalfe's observation that schoolbook requisitioning throughout the country followed standard processes.
Terms of reference
"The fundamental question here, though, is whether this is within the terms of reference of the task team … It is advisable that [Metcalfe's] report limits itself to the Limpopo department of education and its procurement processes," the website document says.
"The procurement and delivery of textbooks has nothing to do with" the basic education department and is the "sole preserve and prerogative of the provincial education departments", it argues at another point.
This appears to be the department's defence of its role in the textbook debacle after it took over management of the Limpopo department in December.
The department also complained about Metcalfe's suggestion that school principals were often unavailable to receive deliveries of textbooks because of the holidays. This "has been harped upon [on] several occasions and in a variety of reports", the website document said.
The Metcalfe report's criticism that "procedures were not followed [by departmental officials] to check receipt of books from publishers into the warehouse" draws the department's riposte: "Ironically, there was an official for the department who was specifically assigned to do this."
Errors in interpretation
On the department's June 28 claim about 98% delivery, Metcalfe's report suggested "errors in this report could be a consequence of over-worked officials working under great pressure". Here too, the national department seeks to exonerate itself: "Errors in interpretation of the … reports should not be blamed on these reports themselves, but solely on the reading of these reports," according to its website document.
Metcalfe told the Mail & Guardian her final report had "accommodated" the department's longer critique.
But a comparison of the two documents suggests radical disagreement persists. For instance, Metcalfe's report highlights "principals' goodwill", saying "a few travelled long distances to fax their proof of delivery papers to the [team's] call centre, so demonstrating their support for its purpose". Yet the department scathingly rejects this, asking: "What would have been the need to fax, who would they have faxed to? What is the fax number that these principals would fax to?"
In another instance, Metcalfe's report nails "service providers" who "compromis[ed] the reporting process" by using "manual" (hard copy) spreadsheets. This draws the department into angry capitals: "What justifies the argument that manual operations are NOT effective?"
Metcalfe questioned the department's acceptance of reports from private companies on their own delivery performance. "The notion of requesting a supplier to provide a report on [its own] performance" is "not an adequate or acceptable form of monitoring and evaluating a supplier's performance".
But Metcalfe's report does not name these companies, referring instead to "service provider 1 and 2".
Metcalfe refused to be drawn on this, saying: "I did not find it necessary to name them. It adds nothing to the report."
Nikki Stein of Section27 said a discussion last weekend with Metcalfe and the department focused on "the accuracy of facts relied on in making the findings and recommendations" and all parties could now comment as they wanted.