The Limpopo textbook crisis – any different characterisation would be an understatement – reminds one of the book by Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On: Politics, People and Aids.
The book is about the discovery and spread of HIV and Aids in the US and places emphasis on the government’s indifference and political infighting.
It postulates that incompetence and apathy towards those who initially tested HIV-positive allowed Aids to spread and become much worse.
Shilts basically argues that Aids was allowed to happen.
Similarly, many would argue that the textbook crisis in Limpopo was allowed to happen.
Though one cannot accuse the government, at least at the highest level, of indifference toward the crisis (President Zuma has already appointed a task team to give him the true score on this matter), the similarities are there for all to see.
There has been plenty of apathy by those who abandoned textbooks in warehouses, shredded them and dumped some along the road and in rivers.
Indifference and incompetence by some Education Department officials in the province has been alleged. We have seen some finger-pointing and infighting involving the national and provincial education departments, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, her spokesperson Panyaza Lesufi, the media, education administrator Anis Karodia and textbook supplier EduSolutions.
And then there are the serious allegations by Solly Tshitangano, the former acting chief financial officer of the Limpopo Education Department, who reportedly blew the whistle on the EduSolutions deal.
The whole spectacle would make for best-seller non-fiction titled And the Band Played On: Education, Limpopo and the Textbook Saga.
But in all of this, spare a thought for the pupils in Limpopo.
Six months into the year, they were without textbooks.
How do we expect the pupils to learn and teachers to teach without the necessary material?
What is disconcerting is that the pupils and teachers were not without the necessary textbooks because of lack of money.
The money is there. Taxpayers have done their bit – as always – but those we have entrusted to administer education and ensure that monies are spent timeously and on identified needs have let us down.
In normal democracies, heads roll for such bungling.
When the national government intervened in Limpopo there was hope that the administrative chaos of some of the departments, including education, would be arrested.
That hope has been dashed by the textbook crisis.
Was there a proper plan associated with the intervention to ensure that service delivery would not be compromised?
It would seem not.
I welcomed the intervention by the national government in Limpopo, and still do.
The fact that the intervention has already reportedly uncovered massive mismanagement of funds in the Department of Education is a serious indictment of the education authorities in that province.
Be that as it may, such a discovery should not have come at the expense of the pupils.
Systems should have been put in place to ensure that the provision of education to pupils would not be compromised even as the intervention was unfolding.
The textbook crisis flies in the face of a ruling party that has declared education as one of government’s five priorities.
Indeed, it undermines the trust and confidence of pupils, teachers and parents in our public education.
The ruling party’s recent policy documents state that by 2025 we must see “learning and teaching material in abundance and of high quality”. Good intentions.
But for 2012, we should at least have sufficient learning and teaching material. We can talk about “abundance” in 2025.
I honestly fail to understand how a government that has declared education a priority has to be taken to court by an NGO, Section 27, to force it to match its pronouncements with action.
If something is a priority to you, you do all you can to ensure it is achieved. Delivering textbooks six months into the year does not match statements about education being a priority.
The appointment, by Basic Education, of Mary Metcalfe to evaluate textbook deliveries in Limpopo and of the president’s task team, led by Deputy Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene, to investigate the causes of the delays will hopefully come up with solutions that will never see such bungling repeated.
But the problem in Limpopo must not be seen in isolation from the challenges that face basic education generally in our country.
We are just fresh from another education crisis in the Eastern Cape.
Last year we were horrified to learn our lower-level grades, with the exceptions of Grades 1 and 2, are battling with numeracy and literacy.
Ours is a country that apparently spends considerably and comparatively more on education that other countries on the continent, but is the least productive.
Fewer than half the pupils who start Grade 1 reach Grade 12 and less than a quarter of the latter qualify for university entrance. Add to that some of the mud schools and “under-the-tree” classrooms and you cannot but conclude our education ship is sinking.
But in fairness to Minister Motshekga, the education ship hit an iceberg a long time ago, prior to 1994.
My beef, though, is that our education authorities continue to act as though we have the luxury of time, experimenting with curricula (and the future of our children in the process) and dropping the ball on such simple logistics as the delivery of textbooks.
While we all have a role to play in the education of our children; the government, as a provider of learning and teaching material in our public schooling system, has an even bigger role. Unfortunately, it fell short of our expectations in Limpopo.
n McCauley is senior pastor of Rhema Bible Church and chair of the National Interfaith Council of South Africa (NICSA)