Education sagas come to a head

At the centre of this week’s Labour Court dispute between the basic education department and teacher unions is a five-page document granting matric markers a 100% payment increase.

At the centre of the department’s attempt to persuade the court to nullify the agreement is that it was all a dreadful R750-million human error.

And at the centre of urgent public interest is, as with last year’s Limpopo textbook debacle, severe doubt about the competence and accountability of the country’s most senior education officials.

On Wednesday, the third and final day of this week’s hearing, Judge Garth Hulley said that his judgment should not be expected in under a month.

“I want to go through the evidence very carefully,” he said, referring to both the oral and written submissions from the department and the three unions challenging it – the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union, the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa and the Suid-Afrikaanse Onderwysersunie.

However, one does not have to prejudge the merits of any of these submissions, nor unwisely anticipate what Hulley will rule, to suspect that we are yet again witnessing education maladministration of a high order.

Instead, all one has to do is pay attention to the department’s own version of events this week, and alarm bells of the kind textbooks set ringing loudly last year start pealing all over again.

Three basic propositions constituted the department’s attempt to persuade Hulley to cancel the payment increase for matric markers.

First, the department never agreed to the 100% increase in the year-long negotiations that started in February 2010 and allegedly resulted in the five-page document. Second, the official who signed the document, basic education director general Bobby Soobrayan, did not have the authority to do so. And third, he did not read it “properly” before signing it.

So it was all really just simple human error – but a seriously expensive one: the department cannot afford the R750-million it would have to produce to implement the agreement under dispute, its senior counsel, Gerrit Pretorius, told the court.

Hulley expressed a marked interest in how that five-page document had come to be signed. This followed Pretorius’s argument on Wednesday that “the evidence is they [Soobrayan and one of his officials] didn’t properly read the agreement”.

Hulley said: “If he simply rubber-stamps whatever he’s given, he must accept the consequences.”

“He must,” Pretorius readily agreed.

Perhaps Hulley will have more to say about such “consequences” in his judgment.

But, for now, the public is surely entitled to ask serious questions about how things are done in the basic education department.

To do so, Minister Angie Motshekga, not only Soobrayan, should be firmly brought into the picture – again – on the evidence of Pretorius’s own version of events.

This is because his case for the department, which nails Soobrayan, relies heavily on a Government Gazette notice Motshekga issued in March 2011 after negotiations on matric payments were concluded in the Education Labour Relations Council.

This made no reference to anything like a 100% increase: it merely announced an inflation-related hike of about 6%.

However, in the following month, April 2011, Soobrayan signed the five-page document, with its stipulation of the now contested 100% – apparently without noticing the huge discrepancy between this and Motshekga’s gazetted increase.

But, if Pretorius is correct about all this, where was Motshekga throughout the entire process? It is not conceivable she knew nothing about the year-long bargaining council negotiations when she signed the gazetted notice.

One question here, therefore, is whether the minister and director general actually speak to each other over matters involving R750-million.

Another is the question of accountability – perhaps the most conspicuous link between Labour Court dispute and the textbook sagas.

It is a stark fact that, to this day, more than 18 months after the schoolbooks crisis first came to public attention (in this newspaper), not a single official has yet been held accountable for it. And also, to this day, Motshekga still washes her hands of it: criticism of her on this “vexed issue” is “completely unjustified”, she wrote in the City Press last weekend.

Because a director general is a department’s chief accounting officer, Soobrayan clearly has a lot to answer for. But because a minister holds overall political accountability, Motshekga surely carries a similar obligation.

Whatever Hulley rules, in other words, his judgment will surely cast some light on now long-standing questions about education officialdom’s competence, responsibility and accountability.

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