South Africa

Court case dropout: Is the DBE guilty of intimidation?

By Greg Nicolson 4 October 2012

When the judgment on the Limpopo textbooks case is delivered today, Section27 will be a man down. A co-applicant, teammate from the start, appears to have flipped. The rights group says he was intimidated. The Department of Basic Education says he has seen the light. GREG NICOLSON says we should be extremely cautious.

Hanyani Thomo Secondary School has appeared as one of three applicants in each of the Limpopo textbook court appearances. It’s unlikely you know its name or the name of Tondani Lydia Masiphephetu, who chairs a Limpopo primary school’s governing body. But these two applicants stood alongside Section27 in the fight for quality education. They did it despite the risks in a climate of intimidation and a province riddled with corruption. 

But that intimidation looks to have finally overwhelmed Hanyani Thomo Secondary School Principal Mashangu Maurice Hlungwane. The school remains an applicant in the matter in front of the North Gauteng High Court, but Hlungwane is now sitting behind the Department of Basic Education and signing affidavits for its lawyers.

Section27 attorney Nikki Stein, who has been working with Hlungwane for most of the year, claimed in an affidavit that the principal told her he wants to withdraw from the proceedings to end the victimization he has received from the Department of Basic Education. He said he’d been barred from official events and he and his wife had received demanding calls from Minister Angie Motshekga’s office. “While there are numerous problems at his school, he fears reporting them because of the intimidation,” Stein’s affidavit read.

Hlungwane denied the claims, leading the department’s lawyers to call Section27’s affidavit “scandalous, vexatious and/or irrelevant”. The principal was waiting in court on Tuesday, ready to try to reduce Section27’s claims.

He denied he had ever been intimidated or told Section27 the department pressured him. He believed there was no textbook-related crisis at his school and the phone calls from Motshekga’s office were part of standard procedure, while the only problem he had was with a provincial official. “I deny that I have been victimised by either the minister or the Department of Basic Education,” read Hlungwane’s affidavit, “I deny that an explanation was demanded of me… I deny that I was intimidated.”

Section27 fears Hlungwane was heavily pressured into denying the claims. “We do strongly suspect that there has been and is intimidation by the department,” said Stein. She suspects Hlungwane was forced to sign an affidavit contradicting previous claims. “There has been a lot of that.”

The rights group has previously said that threats from government officials “continues to discourage principals, teachers and learners from reporting the (state and province’s) continued failure to deliver textbooks to their schools”. Last month a community leader said schools had been instructed to stay silent textbook delivery. Solanga Milambo said the schools he visited were told not to divulge information regarding textbooks. School governing bodies and principals, she said, “were told this by the minister (Angie Motshekga)… They were told they are not going to receive any of the other textbooks and they must use what they got.” Section27 has reported the climate of intimidation to the Public Protector.

In August, the rights group published a letter it received from a Limpopo educator that read, “I don’t know how can they now talk about catch-up plans when textbooks are not yet delivered. The Minister of Education came to our district and threatened us not to talk to the media about the book shortages if we value our careers. Even now I don’t want my name to be known cause I will risk losing my job.”

Basic Education spokesman Panyaza Lesufi admitted that Hlungwane’s about-face did seem surprising, but he claimed it was to be expected. He said the department had contacted the school and to its surprise it found that a member of the Democratic Alliance is on the board of the school governing body and had pressured everyone into pursuing legal action. The claim sounds dubious, but perhaps after a horror year dealing with the textbook scandal Lesufi finally feels it’s under control.

He strongly denied allegations of intimidation. “We managed to put that person in court yesterday. Could we force that person to come to court against their will? Surely not. That person had to drive from Venda, over 400km. Why would that person come all that way if they didn’t believe what they were saying?”

The textbook matter is now under control and the department’s been taken to court to further the interests of civil society groups, he claimed. “We’ve indicated earlier that unfortunately Section27 is suffering from a very serious disease called ‘Angie-phobia’… The schools have said to us that the NGO is using the matter for fundraising.”

It’s a tactic the department has been using a lot lately. In court on Tuesday it acknowledged Limpopo students are still waiting for thousands of books, meaning Motshekga’s team are in violation of two court orders. It also acknowledged that it neglected to respond to correspondence from Section27. Publicly, however, the department’s been trying to send a resounding message it has the issue under control and another court appearance could have been avoided if only Section27 picked up the phone. They’ve been playing the man, not the ball, hoping to put an end to a saga that has brought disgrace on the department and Motshekga. But that’s just spin.

Daily Maverick couldn’t reach Hlungwane on Wednesday, but if Basic Education wants to clear itself from allegations of intimidation, Hlungwane might need to answer some questions. Why did he tell Section27 he had been intimidated and that there are outstanding problems at his school and then sign to the contrary? What process led to the change in allegations and with whom from Basic Education did he meet or have contact with?

For many South Africans, the Limpopo textbook scandal has proved the judiciary will uphold our constitutional rights and order the government to fulfil its obligations. If the allegations of intimidating an applicant are true and the department tried to steal a court victory, it sends a worrying message that the best way to beat civil society organisations highlighting government failures is to deny them an even battle and let them reach but never clasp the constitution. DM

Read more:

  • “Basic education fights to deliver on its own terms.” on Daily Maverick 

Photo by Reuters.


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