On June 24 President Jacob Zuma signed a proclamation authorising the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) to investigate what has been described as South Africa’s worst education department.
But sources question whether this latest intervention in the Eastern Cape will bring change to the real cause of the collapse: feeble leadership and the forces undermining it.
The SIU has been tasked with probing allegations that include serious maladministration, improper or unlawful conduct by employees, and unlawful appropriation or expenditure of public money by the department, the presidency said last week.
These problems have manifested in tender irregularities, unpaid teachers, vacant teacher posts, teacher strikes, fluctuating leadership, and court action over furniture, transport for scholars and inappropriate infrastructure. This situation has had a devastating effect on pupils, many of whom walk tens of kilometres to schools that are built of mud and have insufficient teachers.
The rot reached a destructive enough level to warrant several interventions and investigations, including a section 100 intervention in 2011 in which the basic education department took over the province’s administration.
The public protector looked into the failure to provide workbooks on time in 2012 and 2013, a problem caused by the lack of “functional co-ordination structures” in the province.
The auditor general’s 2014-2015 report said the department was being investigated by the police and the Hawks over irregularities in contract management for furniture and catering at school hostels.
But none of these actions has had a significant effect.
An attorney for the Grahamstown-based Legal Resources Centre (LRC), Cameron McConnachie, said Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s leadership in terms of her section 100 intervention “has gone unnoticed on the ground”.
“Of the six priority emergency areas Motshekga cited as reasons for intervening, only one – school nutrition – has seen significant improvement and that was not because of the intervention,” McConnachie told the Mail & Guardian.
“The other areas are still a shambles: scholar transport is in crisis, with thousands of children left out, thousands of teacher posts remain vacant, improving infrastructure and the eradication of mud schools is years behind schedule, and there is very little evidence of planning, accountability or financial management.” He said it was arguable that education in the province was the same or possibly worse than it was four years ago.
The LRC has at least four court actions against the department.
The education researcher for the Public Service Accountability Monitor, Zukiswa Kota, said the weak administrative systems of the department were “so pronounced as to have essentially proved resistant to national interventions and several high-level ‘turnaround’ strategies and the section 100 intervention is perhaps the best example of this”.
“While there were some pronounced changes, some of the fundamental problems persist, particularly those pertaining to financial management, personnel and leadership.”
She said, while the executive leadership in the form of the executive committee members remained stable, the relative instability in the post of the superintendent general “continues to pose administrative challenges for the department”.
In 2013 superintendent general Modidima Mannya walked out early on a three-year contract. Departmental head Mthunywa Ngonzo was suspended in the same year over allegations of mismanagement of a R46-million school furniture tender.
Problems created by a weak and unstable leadership were exacerbated by the “ongoing tensions between the South African Democratic Teachers Union and the department”, said Kota. It created “administrative tumult”, an example being the “initial welcome and subsequent ousting of the ‘corruption-busting’ Mannya”, but has resulted in delays at the expense of teaching and learning. She said no change would come because of “slow, delayed, weak disciplinary action that is neither effective in ensuring improved management nor enough of a deterrent”.
“Leaders like Mannya [who] have taken decisive action against fraud and corruption in the past [have received] inadequate support and even hostile responses.”
SIU spokesperson Ayanda Maki said the investigation would start when Zuma published the signed proclamation. “We are in the process of planning the investigation team, the approach and thereafter [we] will be able to advise of time frames.”
Neither the provincial nor national education departments responded to the M&G’s questions.