As rights organisation Equal Education this week prepared new court papers on school infrastructure and arranged a related protest march to be held next week in Pretoria, it has become urgently pertinent to ask one question of Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga. Does she have any sincere intention to publish the so-called "minimum norms and standards" in this vital area of schooling that she and government have long promised?
The question arises partly because of the inordinate delay in her doing so – about four years, if measured only in terms of her promises since she joined the Cabinet in 2009, and considerably longer when one recalls that the government's policy intentions to publish the norms well predate Motshekga's tenure.
But the query also arises because Motshekga's explanations – if they deserve that term – for the delay have ranged over this period between implausible and disingenuous. As a masterly recent example of the latter, consider the following sentence from the minister's May 9 letter to Equal Education asking for an extension to the May 15 deadline on which she had agreed for publishing the norms.
From the comments she received during the three-month comment period on the draft norms she published on January 8 this year, she wrote: "I have discerned that it is undesirable for me to finalise and promulgate the norms and standards in their current form."
But how can we seriously believe that, after about two years of her consultations with Equal Education on exactly what form the regulations should take, and with explicit legislation on the matter, it took the 35 comments she said she had received on the draft norms to alert her to the paltry insufficiency of the eight-page draft she gazetted on January 8?
The very next sentence in her letter unintentionally sharpens this question: "In the main, stakeholders object to the fact that the [draft] norms and standards lack substance and certainty, and that there is not [a] clear framework or plan for implementing [them]."
As is now widely known – very largely because of the activism from civil society organisations whose efforts have usually been welcomed with outright contempt and castigation from Motshekga and her department – the heart of these norms is accountability.
That is, they must be detailed enough in specific quantitative terms to allow anyone to tell whether a given school has, for instance, enough toilets or adequate perimeter fencing or water. And they must be sufficiently widely published to afford anyone access to formal channels of complaint if specified minimums are not met.
It therefore beggars belief that Motshekga and her officials really thought the eight-page draft, unencumbered as it is by any figures or specifications at all, would meet with anyone's approval.
But what Motshekga unequivocally did achieve was another delay – namely, the statutory comment period. And if one starts to wonder about how deliberate all this procrastination might be, another remarkable feature of her May 9 letter to Equal Education becomes apparent: it asked for an extension but failed to indicate how long she felt she needed.
More delay necessarily, and predictably, followed. Equal Education was forced into consultation – not least with its attorneys; another avoidable expense – about how to respond. It duly did so on May 16, offering the minister, "with great reluctance", an extension of one month, that is, until June 15.
This drew a lightning response from Motshekga: she replied the following day, offering various reasons why "six months would be a more realistic time frame". Especially because the sheer speed of this reply suggested she and her officials didn't have to ponder the matter for terribly long, why could she not have helped terminate this astonishingly protracted ping-pong match by mentioning that detail in the first place?
But by this point Equal Education had had enough: as reported by M&G Online this week, it filed an urgent application in the Bhisho High Court to force Motshekga into action.
The outcome is now anyone's guess, and so the question remains: does Motshekga sincerely intend ever to publish these norms? And if she doesn't, could she please tell us both that and why?
Otherwise, she herself will continue to fuel the media speculation – in this case, about her and the government's pronounced aversion to any form of genuine accountability – that she has so repeatedly deplored.