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25 July 2014 10:50 (South Africa)
Opinionista Basil van Rooyen

Never forget: The road to hell is paved with good intentions

  • Basil van Rooyen
If you asked the average South African what the Trabant, the old “plastic” East German car, and South African school textbooks have in common, they’d say: “Nothing”. But they would be wrong. What they have in common is well-intentioned bureaucrats with limited skills and vision.

It would not have occurred to me make the connection had I not just come back from Eastern Europe, and coincidentally attended the AGM of South African Publishers’ Association immediately afterwards. In the event the similarities leapt out at me, and I felt I had to share them.

Firstly, the Trabant: The little “plastic” car was produced in Sachsen in East Germany and was the most common vehicle in that country. It was also exported to other communist countries. Its feeble two-stroke engine produced noxious fumes and froze in winter, the waiting time after ordering one was about 10 years and early models had no fuel gauge. Three million of them were made over a period of 30 years.

There are still a few left on the roads in Eastern Europe. Tour guides point them out with glee to tourists, telling hilarious stories about their infamous unreliability. Fan clubs collect them for their quaintness. They are called “plastic” or “cardboard” cars not only because of their uninspiring looks, but because their bodies were made of Duroplast, which in East Germany was made of constantly varying amounts of cotton and paper fibre. They are affectionately and derisively known as “Trabis”. But here is the thing: when the Trabant was first produced it was not a bad car for its time, with front wheel drive and independent suspension. The purpose in producing it was also entirely laudable: it was meant as an affordable car for the people, for the proletariat, for everyman.

Well, as we know, a similar people’s car (German translation: volkswagen) was really getting going in West Germany at the same time, produced by the same German people in a different part of the country. Looking back in history we have to ask ourselves the question: why is the one today a forgotten relic, a practical joke, and the other a flourishing multi-national?

The answer is simple: In the case of the Trabi, production and marketing decisions were made on a centralised basis by well-meaning bureaucrats, on the assumption that if huge numbers were produced of the same product it would be cheaper for everyone, while Volkswagen was subject to the full forces of open market competition.

So what does this have to do with our school textbooks?

South Africa has established a sound school textbook industry over many years. A great variety of material has been produced since 1994 that can compare in quality with the best in the world. (Of course, there is also dreadful stuff.) Since no one in this country trusted any teacher to be able to decide what textbook to choose for his or her own use in class, textbooks were subject to departmental selection procedures. Often these procedures were silly and even bizarre, but because each of nine provinces could select its own range of books and there was no limit to the range. Good books also made it and on the whole easily outsold bad books. Prices were kept reasonable through ruthless competition.

Enter the bureaucrats. Having heard that book prices were subject to economies of scale, in other words, if you print more, they become cheaper, the department of basic education (yes, the same one that cannot run schools or manage teachers or discipline unions) decided that for the new school curriculum being introduced to replace outcomes-based education (not long ago seen by the same department as the salvation of the country), they should centralise selection and distribution in the national department, and limit the choice to three books from which all schools have to choose. They were and remain completely oblivious to the logistical and other challenges involved.

Massive resistance from publishers forced them to increase the quota to eight, but it is still a handful compared to the range and variety currently available. How does this decision compare with that of the East German bureaucrats who settled on the Trabant and hardly changed its looks or performance for 30 years (until it all collapsed and was taken over by Volkswagen)? I would say very little.

The effect on the local publishing industry will be devastating. Only a handful of large publishers (mostly owned by multinationals with deep pockets) will survive. All the survivors will cut back staff to the bone once the new titles for the curriculum have been published, for although the total number of books sold will be the same, the number of titles will be severely reduced, and fewer titles mean fewer publishing staff, salespeople, warehouse people, admin staff, etc. The numerous freelancers (editors, typesetters, illustrators, proofreaders and others) dependent on the book industry will also be reduced to a tiny pool, since school publishing produces the bulk of books in this country.

It took half a century to build up a viable skills base for publishing in this country. Once such a pool of skills is lost to an industry, it is impossible to resurrect it. Just in case you thought the ANC is the only one to argue this way, take note that in Western Cape the education department already allows only one book to a subject on the assumption that it is more important that each child gets a cheap book than that some publishers retain their jobs. “Our duty is to look after education, not publishing,” is the attitude.

Experience in other Third World countries in this respect is chilling. There are cases of countries where the World Bank provided huge amounts of money, picking one title based on a tender process, and then left behind a devastated industry when their attention wandered elsewhere four years later and the funds dried up. The situation has been even worse where governments actually tried to publish books themselves. Governments cannot do this successfully any more than they can manufacture cars competitively. They do not even begin to understand the complexities of the industry.

If it were cars, everyone would be up in arms. Even (perhaps especially) the ANC Youth League and the Communist Party would not like to be seen driving just one kind of car (let’s say a Chinese Great Walls Motors bakkie), but since few people care about textbooks or can even tell the difference between them, there will be no public outcry in this case.

So welcome to the new world of Trabi textbooks. Despite reasonably good textbook material, our education system is already almost the worst in the world; soon it will be indisputably the worst. DM


 

  • Basil van Rooyen
basil van rooyen

Basil van Rooyen has spent a lifetime in the book industry, the first half working for multi-national publishing companies and the second running his own companies, focusing on non-fiction and educational books. He has been chair of PASA (the South African Publishing Association) a couple of times and his book Get Your Book Published in 30 (Relatively) Easy Steps: A Hands-on Guide for South African Authors was published in a fourth version by Penguin last year. These days he runs his book publishing from Plettenberg Bay although the company offices are in Johannesburg.


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