BY THE BOOK: Textbooks and stationery at the Department of Educations warehouse in Polokwane after the department bungled its textbook deliveries to schools in Limpopo. Picture: Itumeleng English

The Limpopo education crisis has dominated headlines, and with good reason – but matters have become so muddled and obfuscated that the true facts of the situation have become almost hopelessly obscured.

Political machinations, court proceedings, investigations, an inability on the part of government to resolve the situation on the ground in Limpopo, and our old enemies – rumour, insinuation and innuendo – have resulted not in solutions and clarity but in finger-pointing, the hysterical demanding of political heads, and the unfair besmirching of corporate and individual reputations.

All these developments have done nothing to resolve the plight of those who don’t have a voice in this matter: the tens of thousands of learners whose futures hang in the balance. The longer this situation persists, the less the chances that they will experience relief anytime soon.

I think it’s worthwhile to attempt to remove all the emotion swirling around the Limpopo education matter, and to identify some of the salient facts. Only by dispassionately looking at them, can we really begin to divine the true state of affairs.

FACT: money ring-fenced to buy textbooks for the 2012 school year was reallocated in mid-2011 by the Limpopo government. This was the genesis of the situation. Without there being funds to buy textbooks, the 2011/12 procurement cycle could not commence. This matter was never satisfactorily addressed, and the question remains why the Limpopo government ran out of money in the first place.

FACT: the national Department of Basic Education (DBE) requested emergency funding from the Treasury in January this year, and did not get a response

There is absolutely no doubt that not enough money was set aside for textbooks for the 2011/12 school year. To ameliorate the budgetary shortfall, schools are not receiving the numbers of textbooks they requested – nor are they getting the titles they want, as the DBE has ordered cheaper alternatives in some cases.

FACT: The government determines which textbooks may be ordered, and fixes prices with publishers

In order to ensure uniformity and conformance with the curriculum, government draws up a list of textbooks for schools who then place their orders. This way, schools have the option of ordering the textbooks which best suit their needs.

This list will be compiled in conjunction with publishers, which proffer the various textbooks that they have developed for consideration. The prices of the books are also negotiated and fixed on this list.

When the procurement system functions properly – as it did in Limpopo in 2010/11 – schools then place their orders.

These orders are collated and presented to government for budgetary approval.

Only once this process has been finalised, can the books be ordered and delivered – and government holds the purse strings all the way. In other words, there is no leeway for inflation of prices by service providers.

FACT: outsourcing of a non-core function allows government to focus on its core function – ensuring that learners receive a quality education

This is simple: buying and delivering textbooks is not the education departments’s core activity – teaching children is.

Additionally, the textbook procurement process is a seasonal matter, and it makes no sense for government to set up full-time capacity to handle it.

This, then, leaves two more options: leave the logistics to booksellers, for whom this is also not a core business function, or outsource procurement and distribution to a specialist service provider.

We are able to provide this service to government at a saving of up to a quarter of what it would cost the state to do the same job. And it’s a fact that our systems have worked well: just ask the KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng departments of education, where we have achieved a 99 percent on-time delivery rate.

FACT: EduSolutions was contracted in 2010 to procure and distribute textbooks for the following three years, and successfully did so for the 2010/11 cycle

Using the expertise and proprietary logistical systems developed over the decade, and used successfully in other provinces – where the provision of textbooks happens seamlessly and on time – EduSolutions delivered on its mandate in the first year of its contract with the Limpopo Department of Education.

That 100 percent delivery record was sufficient for the Limpopo Department of Education to provide EduSolutions with a referral letter in support of its successful pitch to the Mpumalanga education authorities. It should go without saying that this endorsement would not have materialised, had EduSolutions not performed admirably in its first year of operations in Limpopo.

FACT: EduSolutions was cut out of the 2011/12 textbook procurement process in Limpopo, and thus is not responsible for the status quo.

As a matter of record, EduSolutions warned the Limpopo Department of Education several times last year that the textbook procurement process was being thwarted by the lack of clarity around budgeting for textbooks in 2011/12.

There was no sufficient response to these warnings.

When national government took over administration of Limpopo in December, EduSolutions once again raised a red flag to warn that learners would not receive their textbooks in time for the school year.

EduSolutions at all times co-operated with the authorities to try to achieve a textbook procurement order that was within allocated budget. This included sharing its database with government and crafting a consolidated order that amounted to R581 million, which was then reduced several times by the DBE.

By the time the list was finalised, the order had been reduced to R146m, which was insufficient to meet even the bare minimum requirements to provide new curricular material for Grades 1-3 and 10, who were begun on the new CAPS syllabus this year, leave alone top up textbooks for other grades.

Be that as it may, before the procurement order was finalised, the DBE summarily cancelled EduSolutions’s contract with the Limpopo Department of Education, which resolved to procure and deliver textbooks itself. The Metcalfe report notes that two further service providers – which, astonishingly, are not identified except by the abbreviations “SP1” and SP2” – were then brought in, and they were clearly not up to the task.

The bottom line is that EduSolutions was not involved in the procurement of textbooks for 2011/12.

FACT: EduSolutions is disputing the cancellation of its contract with the Limpopo Department of Education

Media reports suggest that EduSolutions legally challenged the DBE’s cancellation of the contract in the North Gauteng High Court, and lost.

In fact, this matter is ongoing.

The EduSolutions application for relief was deemed by the court in June to not be urgent. (We respectfully disagreed with the court then on the urgency of the matter, and we still do; clearly, the provision of textbooks becomes more urgent by the day.)

EduSolutions’s principal contention is that the contract cancellation is invalid because the agreement was between EduSolutions and the Limpopo Department of Education, not the DBE. Legal opinion on this matter is divided, as the DBE has taken over administration of Limpopo – but our contention, then, is that the contract cancellation was in any event administratively incorrect.

This issue will ultimately be decided by the courts.

Irrespective of who is to blame for this shameful state of affairs, the bottom line is that textbooks – the right ones, in sufficient quantities – are not getting through to Limpopo’s schools, and into the hands of learners.

We’ve already reached the point this year that textbooks need to be requisitioned for the 2013 academic year.

We’ve seen, in stark terms, what happens when the procurement process is bungled – and if government doesn’t show direct leadership right now, next year will be even worse.

And that’s a fact.

It all make those of us with consciences cringe.

l Mateli Mpuntsha, an educator, is a co-founder and executive director of African Access Holdings, the holding company of EduSolutions