MECs, not Angie, have to fix schools

With the exception of the Free State and the Western Cape, which have kept Tate Makgoe and Debbie Schafer respectively, there are new faces in the education portfolios in other provinces.

Makgoe’s noticeable achievement in the Free State, which might have ensured that he retains his position, has been impressive matric results. The province clinched the number one spot on the national matric results table in 2016 and 2017.

In 2016 the province got a 93.2% pass rate, making it the first province to break the 90% threshold since the introduction of the National Senior Certificate exams. In 2017 it obtained an 86% pass rate.

“Breaking this [90%] threshold is no child’s play in the public sector, with all the challenges of public education …” said Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga at the time.

Although there are many issues confronting the new cohort, they also have a great deal of power.

Professor Mary Metcalfe, a former MEC for education in Gauteng who also worked as director general in the department of higher education and training, told the Mail & Guardian this week that people often see provincial leadership positions as junior compared to national. Yet things could not be further from the truth, she said.

“This represents a misunderstanding of the constitutional power and responsibility that resides at provincial level,” said Metcalfe. “MECs have much greater financial and implementation accountability for education than the national minister.”

Motshekga herself said in an interview with the M&G last year that she was too often berated for things that were outside her competency as a national minister. She said, for example, that she did not understand why, 24 years into democracy, there are still schools without toilets.

“But unfortunately there is nothing I can do because I do not have the budget for school maintenance — it’s provincial work.”

She acknowledged however, that even though she has no power to instruct MECs on what to do with provincial budgets because they answer to premiers, she had been complacent and failed to implement mechanisms that ensure that provinces at least account to her.

Metcalfe went on to say that there had been “excellent appointments” of MECs, who would be expected to promptly improve areas of weakness in the system.

In KwaZulu-Natal, it is in the hands of 34-year-old Kwazi Mshengu — the new MEC for education — to finally address the rural allowance, an incentive paid to teachers in rural schools. This has been a controversial issue in the province for years as some view it as unfair and unsustainable.

The Eastern Cape still has a large number of mud schools and thousands of pupils who walk many kilometres to school because they are not provided with scholar transport. Recently the Legal Resources Centre took the provincial department to court on behalf of 163 pupils from Peddie who had no transport to and from school. The court papers revealed that there were about 20 000 pupils across the province who are affected by this. New MEC, Fundile Gade, will have to tackle such obstacles head on.

Limpopo is beset with infrastructure backlogs which have meant that pupils are attending dilapidated schools, built by communities in the 1970s.

A 2016 conditions assessment by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), on behalf of the department, revealed that it needed just over R21-billion to catch up on the building and maintenance of schools in the province. That figure was estimated to grow to nearly R27-billion this year.

Sometimes these problems make headlines — such as poor sanitation, which led to the death of five-year-old Michael Komape, who fell into a pit toilet in 2014 — but most of the time people suffer outside of the public gaze. The province’s education system now relies on Poppy Moshielo to bring about change urgently for children and teachers.

Gauteng, which has moved its much-loved — and hated — MEC Panyaza Lesufi to head the province’s finance and e-government department, has more resources but also more learners and the problems that come with providing for more people.

Nomantu Nkomo-Ralehoko — who served for just 25 days as MEC for agriculture and rural development in 2009 under former premier Nomvula Mokonyane — has to fill his shoes.

The power lies with these men and women to mend their education systems. It is not the national minister of basic education, but the provinces that have to use their budgets to build schools; provide scholar transport; make sure that textbooks and stationery are delivered to classrooms on time; and provide decent sanitation in schools. It is also the provinces that have to appoint competent, dedicated teachers.

Mugwena Maluleke, the general secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) has, however, called for the law to be changed to give more powers to the minister, so that MECs are accountable to that person.

“The problem is the Constitution, it has got this most important service that is a parallel service where it’s [education] run by the province.”

In an interview with M&G, he said the national minister has to develop monitoring tools that MECs will have to comply with. “If you don’t make people report continuously and frequently, you are allowing them to do what they want to do.”

“They [MECs] may listen to you, they may not listen to you as a minister. So why don’t we change the law? Because these people can take R2-billion and go and fund the development of a stadium instead of funding education; it is their prerogative because they are a province, and that thing must change.”

The new premier of the Northern Cape, Zamani Saul, has already said that he is going to ensure that there is service delivery in his province, especially in education. In his inauguration speech this week, Saul said he will spend time monitoring the department of education personally and will have an office there.

“Despite the difficulties, we are going to get our education system on track and be amongst the best performing provinces in the country,” Saul said.

Actions like this show that provincial leadership is increasingly aware of the problems with basic services, such as education, and they know it is politically important to solve them. The future of education — and that of millions of students — lies in their hands.

Other new education MECs are: Wendy Matsemela, North West; Mac Collen Jack, Northern Cape and Bonakele Majuba, Mpumalanga.

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.
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