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Limpopo textbook saga: Musical chairs is a distraction, not a solution

South Africans are once again in a mean mood, demanding that heads must roll over the textbooks saga.

But, I submit, we must ask ourselves: What then? After the president has fired Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga or the provincial education MEC, will we then believe that the problem is solved? Will our desire for retribution have been satisfied?

Depriving our children of learning materials is a shame on everyone concerned and it is no surprise that everyone, from those who genuinely care about the children to opposition parties milking the issue, is calling for heads to roll and the president to act.

And it seems the calls have not abated – even since the government launched several investigations to assure us it is doing something.

So the blame game begins in earnest. Is it Motshekga, the MEC or the company EduSolutions's fault? Or is it the treasury's intervention team under whose watch the failures took place?

Swift retribution
I honestly feel that the swift retribution some crave is not the real solution we need. What we are doing by insisting on President Jacob Zuma firing someone is essentially giving him an easy way out. To repeat myself: What will change after someone has been fired? Do we know who will replace that person and will the replacement be any better?

Black Consciousness proponent Andile Mngxitama often argues that the ANC-South African Communist Party-Cosatu alliance has managed the art of keeping voters in their fold. He refers to this as hijacking poor people's struggles.

How it works is that people in a particular community will complain about housing or electricity, for example. Cosatu or the SACP will then take up the issue and organise a march to, say, the relevant authority. The people will vent their anger during the march, but ultimately the very organisers of the march will urge them to vote for the same ANC when voting time approaches.

Mngxitama sees this as one big strategy of containment according to which  the ANC, the source of disgruntlement, eventually takes the credit for taking up people's issues. It is one big merry-go-round.

I am reminded of this view whenever there is a clamour for Zuma to act by firing someone. From what we know of Zuma so far, he will act accordingly. Someone will lose their job (for now), but with what will we be left?

Zuma has mastered the art of getting South Africans off his back by giving them what they want. He has so far effected three reshuffles in two-and-half years, getting rid of some Cabinet members. But has anyone asked whether there was any actual improvement in performance as a result of those reshuffles?

Quiet diplomacy
I am not arguing for inaction; I am saying we must think carefully about what we agitate for.

As I have written before, Zuma's style is in stark contrast to that of former president Thabo Mbeki, who refused to be goaded into action. Mbeki's attitude was always that he was in charge and would act if the facts before him warranted action.

That was not always a great idea, because it essentially meant that he was unresponsive to crisis and came across as uncaring.

But to quote him: "From us, from the government, will issue no words that are lightly spoken."

He is largely remembered for steadfastly refusing to condemn Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party's violence against its opponents, or the forceful land removals of white farmers by Zimbabwean war veterans. Mbeki and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, then his foreign affairs minister, insisted they were engaged in "quiet diplomacy" on the matter and would not be forced into statements.

Then there was Mbeki's response to critics who accused him of saying little about crime in his State of the Nation address.

He said: "There will be no empty theatrical gestures, no prancing on the stage and no flagellation, but we will continue to act against crime as decisively as we have sought to do throughout the years of our liberation.

"For 64 years I have never had the ability or the courage or the need to resort to grand theatrical gestures. I know for a fact that the overwhelming majority of the masses of our people would be gravely offended if tomorrow, to respond to the demands of Pharisees, I should take to the stage to weep tears meant for the camera. From us, from the government, will issue no words that are lightly spoken."

Lest I be accused of underplaying arguably one of the worst crises since 1994, I must be clear: I am appealing that we, too, should not be satisfied with light words on this matter. We need to hear of a systematic response, a plan to ensure we do not run into this issue ever again.

Words of condemnation and the replacement of one person by another should not lead us into complacency.

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Rapule Tabane
Guest Author

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