Good riddance to the old guard, may their replacements bring fresh thinking to education

Siviwe Gwarube, the newly appointed Minister of Basic Education and Higher Education.

Siviwe Gwarube, the newly appointed Minister of Basic Education and Higher Education.

Published Jul 1, 2024


Edwin Naidu

The education sector in South Africa is on the brink of a new era, with the unexpected appointments of Siviwe Gwarube and Nobuhle Nkabane as Minister of Basic Education and Higher Education, respectively. Their fresh perspectives and innovative approaches hold the promise of significant change.

While Gwarube has been hailed a “rising star” in political circles, Nkabane has been largely anonymous as deputy minister of mineral resources and energy. They've been given the keys to the expanded education portfolio in the Seventh Administration which includes a standalone Science and Innovation ministry, and Sports, Arts and Culture under Gayton McKenzie of the Patriotic Alliance.

The shafting of current education incumbents Angie Motshekga and Blade Nzimande to Defence and the re-established Science and Innovation Ministry, respectively, is an undeserved reward for mediocrity.

Motshekga and Nzimande have made way in education for individuals who are poised to inject a 'winning mentality' into the stale ways of doing things. Our country's education system is in dire need of this kind of inspiration and motivation.

While politics is about patronage instead of what benefits the people of South Africa, it is essential to support Gwarube and Nkabane in their demanding new roles. One can laud Motshekga and Nzimande for changing the basic and tertiary landscape. But honestly, neither of them has shot out the lights.

Their achievements are based on spin, while the situation is far from their reality, which is that they are out of touch with the people and the needs of South Africa. But in a spirit of unity, we say thank you – and good riddance.

However, Defence would seem an unnatural fit for Commander Motshekga. In his wisdom, the President has installed General Bantu Holomisa, the charismatic former leader of the Transkei during apartheid, as one of her Deputies.

The reality in Basic Education is that Gwarube inherits a dysfunctional system annually known for putting a positive spin on the matric examinations, even though 300,000 school leavers join the unemployment lines. Worse, according to the Minister's Report on Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), more than 80% of South Africa's Grade 4 pupils –on average nine or ten years old – cannot read for meaning. They can't answer basic questions or draw inferences from a text they're reading.

Turning to the tertiary sector, only a few make it to universities, while many scrap for free government training programmes via the Sector Education Training Authorities, some of which are effective, most not. The high failure rate of first-year students – and university throughput generally indicates a system churning out more failures than success stories. Yet, there is excellence.

Motshekga leaves behind a legacy of a transformer. As the long-serving basic education political head, she has steered through transformation, ensuring that her former comrades at the South African Democratic Teacher's Union (Sadtu), where she came from, got her ear.

Gwarube, the new Democratic Alliance appointment, however, starts on the back foot. A day before the long-awaited announcement from the dithering President, Sadtu complained about the expected Democratic Alliance appointment to the post, claiming the DA wants to destroy the union.

If the union believes in its power base and listens to its members' mandate, why would it think that any party would — and could —destroy its solid legacy? They must focus on the voice of teachers, restore the profession to its rightful place, and secure better pay and opportunities for its members rather than pre-empt the appointment of individuals who have signed up for a Government of National Unity. Let's give Gwarube a chance to lay a solid foundation for the 21st century.

Shafting Nzimande to the standalone Science and Innovation Ministry keeps the Minister in the power seats, albeit with his powers severely blunted. The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) has an R10.9 billion budget for the 2023/24 financial year. According to the National Treasury, the Department of Higher Education's (DHET) expenditure will top R135.6 billion in the 2023/24 financial year.

Nzimande's demotion sees him cut down to size partly because of the uncleared allegations of improper conduct around the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). He has not accounted for the mess. Nzimande’s axing from higher education means that from having the entire slice of the pie, he now presides over a ministry with a budget 12 times less than what he had accountability over. How the mighty have fallen...

But he will probably be able to select a new Beemer and comfortably afford his favourite Merlot. Despite his PR team, Nzimande's legacy is mixed. Aside from the ongoing NSFAS scandals, under Nzimande, many alluded to jobs for friends, whether at the Director-General level or as the chairperson of councils of tertiary bodies at universities and Technical and Vocational Education Training colleges.

Universities are a hotbed of corruption, and the transformation project has stalled dramatically under his watch. Nzimande paid lip service to gender. Appointed in 2009, Mary Metcalfe, a woman hailed by the ANC as a transformation champion, was the last woman Director-General in his department. She left in 2011 and was replaced by the Minister's fellow South African Communist Party comrade and his then Special Advisor, Gwebinkundla Qonde, as director general. When the axe fell on Qonde in 2021, Nkosinathi Sishi replaced him on November 1, 2021.

Following Dr Phil Mjwara's retirement in March after 18 sterling years as Director-General of the Department of Science Innovation, Nzimande could not find a woman for the job despite the talent in the country. That’s a disgrace! In another blow for transformation, Nzimande appointed Daan Du Toit, a white male, acting Director-General for the Department of Science and Innovation for 12 months.

Du Toit has a wealth of experience and is currently the Deputy Director-General at the Department of Science and Innovation, responsible for International Cooperation and Resources. Through this position, he has played a significant role in initiating and maintaining some of South Africa's critical global engagements and partnerships in science, technology, and innovation. It was an oversight to ignore the claims of many amazing women in science who were celebrated but not considered for top jobs by Nzimande.

Despite the relatively low government investment, science and innovation can tap into the remarkable work of men and women in the sector who are conducting excellent research and making breakthroughs in South Africa and internationally.

One of the initiatives driven by the National Research Foundation is the Science Granting Councils Initiative, launched in 2015. This initiative strengthens the capacities of Science Granting Councils in 18 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa to contribute to economic and social development.

Since its establishment, the programme has facilitated funding research projects across the SGCI participating councils in industrialisation and manufacturing, sustainable economies and societies, emerging technologies and development, and social sciences and humanities.

More than 70 projects have been funded based on practical ways of using systems approaches and thinking in research. According to NRF Dr Fulufhelo Nelwamondo, Chief Executive Officer, the Sub-Saharan Africa region is gearing up to implement activities to strengthen the understanding of systems approaches in research.

Nzimande's new low-budget gig, which keeps him at the table, is based on hard-working partnerships between scientists and dedicated administrators, like Nelwamondo, whose representative on the NRF for the SGCI’s Dr Dorothy Ngila is doing a remarkable job of galvanising scientists on the continent.

Science is a soft portfolio for a minister seemingly always at war. He is a science champion. Let’s hope the singular focus helps us step up a gear. The country needs discussion on what must be done in education to ensure the future we want and deserve. Education has a fresh start. We can no longer fail our children as Motshekga and Nzimande have done.

© Higher Education Media

* Edwin Naidu is a communications professional and an education editor. He writes in his personal capacity.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.

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