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WHO is really in charge of education in Limpopo? The MEC? The premier? Or the minister of basic education?
Technically and constitutionally, the MEC is the political head. He reports to the premier and takes the credit when the matric results are good. The MEC and his staff are in charge of schools, regional offices (which control and monitor what’s going on in classes) and operations.
However, morally and politically, the minister takes the rap for anything that goes wrong, especially in the Limpopo case, where the ANC is in charge of national basic education and the provincial education department.
Any blame game or passing of the buck – while children don’t have textbooks – would have been seen as a political excuse and an electoral blunder, which, unfortunately, is the case right now in Limpopo and, to a certain extent, the Eastern Cape.
It would have been much more convenient if the textbook crisis was in the Western Cape, where the national opposition DA is in charge.
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga and the ANC would have been quick to show the world how Helen Zille’s government is messing up black children’s education.
Actually, former education minister, the late Kader Asmal, did point a finger at the Western Cape.
“However, the integrity of government’s function to deliver on the education mandate is seriously undermined in a province like the Western Cape where every effort is made to ensure that provincial perspectives on priorities override national perspectives at the expense of the poor,” he said in his response to a debate on intergovernmental fiscal review in the spring of 2001 (he later changed tack).
But, in essence, any minister of basic education’s job is to set policy, norms and standards that each MEC – who does not necessarily account to him or her, but to the premier – has to carry out.
However, as an ANC minister, Motshekga is – rightly so – a flak-catcher for her provincial comrade’s incompetence for two reasons.
First, the public expects her – as ANC national executive committee member and minister – to have some influence in reining in comrades.
Second, her department has hijacked – according to some politicians in Limpopo – or taken over, according to the Treasury, the provincial education department.
This is when President Jacob Zuma instructed that five provincial departments – including education – be placed under national tutelage.
The Limpopo education folks – especially MEC Dickson Masemola – can actually crack a cynical smile and say “let’s see how you are going to fix my mess”.
But it’s still Masemola’s mess or that of his predecessor, Aaron Motsoaledi (now Zuma’s trusted health minister), and premier Cassel Mathale.
Someone, through sheer indifference or deliberately, allowed the rot to continue unabated, turned a blind eye to an explosive crisis and failed (despite warnings from whistleblowers and audits) to question what turned out to be an education catastrophe.
So, where was Mathale?
He was quiet and stayed away from the public textbook tornado until at least Wednesday, when he appointed a task team, a third such body, to investigate. Motshekga and Zuma separately appointed theirs.
The country, the parents and pupils of Limpopo will have to wait for months for another report, another recommendation, and another press conference. And to find out if anyone will be punished.
Some want Motshekga’s head, despite her apology. She is politically very close to Zuma and the president wouldn’t want to make enemies six months before a conference that could make or break his career.
But to be fair to the president, he has acted against allies like former police chief Bheki Cele and former minister of public works Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde and the late corporate gover- nance minister Sicelo Shiceka.
Anyway – unlike Shiceka and Mahlangu-Nkabinde – Motshekga has not been found guilty by any judicial structure except court orders and the court of moral opinion. She has been bombarded with all manner of accusations regarding the most embarrassing education scandal since the Mpumalanga matric scandal of 1998.
But Motshekga is both a perpetrator and a victim of what her predecessor Asmal used to term the unintended consequences of SA’s federalism, or what is known as concurrent powers – where the powers of ministers of basic education, health, housing, provincial treasury and roads and transport are indirectly frustrated by incompetent provincial governments.
After endorsing and promoting concurrent functions in 2001, Asmal was forced to somersault three years later after he was frustrated by provinces and admitted to what he accepted as a textbook procurement nightmare.
“There ought to be power for the minister to intervene in areas of investment. In the end he is held responsible... I am expected to take corrective measures, yet executive powers reside with provinces. There is a case for adjustment (of powers),” he said in February 2004.
Motshekga is facing a similar dilemma, but – unlike Asmal – she and Zuma used section 100 (1) (a) of the constitution to take over the functions of a provincial government. They must fall on their swords, say legal observers.
On Friday, Masemola said a framework to regulate the takeover should have been put in place as early as January – a month after Zuma placed Limpopo under administration – either in the form of a memorandum of understanding or an agreement.
“Now we are mid-year and that’s why for us what was key was to demonstrate a high level of political maturity and administrative maturity so that there should be proper co-operation between ourselves and our colleagues from the national department. That’s why I have been working closely with her, notwithstanding the fact that there is no framework,” he said.
Constitutional law expert at Unisa, Shadrack Gutto, agrees with Masemola.
Gutto said it appeared the cabinet “miscalculated” its move to place the departments under administration because the national intervention team needed the co-operation of the province in attempting to solve the problems affecting Limpopo.
“If you use that section, the national assumes responsibility. I believe they should have thought carefully before rushing to use that section (of the constitution). It was in December, just before schools opened. The impact should have been considered,” Gutto said.
“The choice of section 100 (1) (b) seems to have led to this kind of chaos. We are dealing with chaos and the dysfunctionality of government. They should have strengthened whatever was regarded as weak.
“Just moving in and taking over leads to dysfunctionality – those are the things that required those in power (to be careful) and I think that is where there was a miscalculation. This was a lack of leadership. It stands to reason that you must work together, walking in like you are overthrowing, you are then left with a difficult situation. That is where there was lack of leadership.”
Warren Freedman, a professor at the law school at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, concurred with Gutto and put the crisis at Motshekga’s door.
“Normally, in an area like education, the provincial government is responsible for implementing the national laws… but because the national government intervenes under section 100 (1) (b) and took over the running of the department, it was the national department’s responsibility, at least from the time they took over,” Freedman said.
Political commentator Somadoda Fikeni, like Freedman, supported Gutto’s view, saying the national government made an assumption that the Limpopo government would co-operate.
“It does not seem to have anticipated what would happen if such co-operation was not forthcoming,” Fikeni said.
“This blame-shifting game is very unfortunate, because it targets education, which is the most crucial, strategic and sensitive sector.
“It is one thing to have a tenderpreneur who decides to do a sloppy job… but an education system, once it corrodes, collapses and has ripple effects that can impact on a generation of learners.”
Fikeni asked: “If a simple logistical issue of moving books from a publisher to a warehouse (and) from a warehouse to schools could be so messy… how are we going to handle complex issues like running mines?”
At last week’s policy conference, Motshekga reiterated Asmal’s proposal of a law that will make it easier for her to intervene in provincial crises.
Speaking to The Sunday Independent, Motshekga said she hoped the new law would be ready to be tabled at the December elective conference of the ruling party.
“By the time we reach the national conference, we must have already tabled the principle that has been agreed and the process that will follow,” she said.
But Motshekga cannot play innocent, as her provincial department was not the most efficient.
Former DA spokesman David Quail told The Sunday Independent this week books were delivered five months into the academic year.
“In most schools they were delivered in April,” he said. “The excuse was always that printers were late.”
But Motshekga claims to have inherited the Gauteng textbook crisis and the controversial EduSolutions – the textbook company at the centre of it all – from her predecessor, Ignatius Jacobs.
Jacobs refused to comment.
The ruling party once toyed with the idea of doing away with provinces, but the subject has now moved to numbers at the policy conference.
With the schools crisis worsened by the concurrence of power, perhaps the party should go back to its constitutional drawing board or revisit its policy textbook.