Masemola’s leadership was a textbook failure

For someone tipped to become Limpopo premier, Dickson Masemola has shown a remarkable distaste for leadership and accountability.

It was under his watch as the province's education minister that last year's textbook crisis — arguably the largest, longest and most acutely embarrassing education debacle since 1994 — unfolded.

Yet for someone whose ministerial ineptitude undoubtedly contributed to the crisis, he kept an astonishingly low profile during the saga and when he did speak out, he simply blamed everyone else.

He was assisted in this buck-passing by the fact that President Jacob Zuma had placed his department under national administration in December 2011. This gave Masemola some wiggle-room. He could, and did, imply that Zuma's Section 100 intervention stripped him not only of power, but also therefore of responsibility.

"This [blaming of me] is totally unfair," Masemola told Eyewitness News last July after a report by education professor Mary Metcalfe confirmed that thousands of Limpopo schoolchildren had indeed not received books, despite months of denial from both the provincial and the national departments.

"If indeed my department [had not been] placed under administration, I [would] take the responsibility.

This was one of his rare comments to the media. As journalists quickly discovered, departmental spokesperson Pat Kgomo routinely directed all inquiries about textbooks to the national department. But what Masemola's wriggling failed to account for was why Zuma had to intervene in the first place. Textbooks were high on the list of reasons the national treasury gave for the December 2011 intervention: the department had by then failed to order any for 2012, as the Mail & Guardian revealed that month.

Departmental maladministration was rife, the treasury found. Unauthorised expenditure amounted to a staggering R2.2-billion, the department's supply chain management systems were chaotic and invoices in excess of R190-million remained unpaid.

In brief, the department lurched into bankruptcy under Masemola and could not afford to buy the textbooks needed for the new Caps curriculum. As things turned out, Limpopo pupils in certain grades went without textbooks for most of the 2012 school year.

Yet Masemola faced no political censure from the ANC or its alliance partners. Why he remained comfortably ensconced as minister is at least partly explained by the South African Democratic Teachers' Union unqualified endorsement of him to this day.

The union did not call for Masemola's resignation because it  blamed the department's collapse on corruption in the entire provincial administration under [premier] Cassel Mathale.

In a very slim credit column for the minister, diehard Masemola enthusiasts might point to the improvement in the province's matric pass rate from 2009 to 2012.

But for most, Masemola will forever be identified with the indelible shame of the textbook debacle.

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Bongani Nkosi
Bongani is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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