South Africa

Zille’s defence of Motshekga – surprising, but still logical

By Greg Nicolson 22 July 2013

Even as we know that politics creates unlikely allies, the DA leader's support of Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga may seem absurd. But is it? Less than ten months before 2014 elections, it appears Helen Zille wants to move the discussion to the provinces where education improvements take place and where the DA wants to win votes. By GREG NICOLSON.

After the recent Cabinet reshuffle, those who survived the axe got as much attention as those who didn’t. The obvious question: how on earth did Angie Motshekga get to keep her job? In June, the basic education minister called NGO Equal Education a “group of white adults organising black African children with half-truths”. In April she seemed more concerned about protestors displaying women’s underwear than the prospect of a mass teacher strike. Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum ranks SA’s education system 133rd out of 144 countries and a study has found that many teachers lack the curriculum knowledge to do their jobs.

Why, then, would DA leader Helen Zille, who we would expect to foment public discontent, congratulate the Motshekga on her performance? After publicly defending the minister last week, Zille explained her position in Sunday’s City Press.

The Western Cape premier looks at three criticisms: the failure to finalise norms and standards infrastructure for schools, the Limpopo textbooks scandal, and Motshekga’s unsuccessful intervention in Eastern Cape. What critics fail to grasp, says Zille, are the different responsibilities of provincial and national governments, the role of the unions, and Motshekga’s realism.

“The question is, has Angie Motshekga fulfilled her constitutional responsibilities? On the basis of the record, she has done so to a far greater degree than any of her predecessors,” says Zille. She calls Motshekga a “soft target”, open to criticism for problems that aren’t her responsibility or that she inherited.

“She actually understands conditions in the average disadvantaged classroom,” writes Zille, arguing Motshekga realises it is pointless adopting “state-of-the-art” infrastructure standards that cannot be implemented. “The minister (sensibly in my view) concluded that there was no point in setting unachievable and unaffordable standards.”

On Limpopo textbooks, Zille blames the provincial department, which had not ordered books and had squandered its budget (drained by ghost teachers) when the national government had intervened. “So can someone explain the logic of blaming Angie – the only minister who has ever fully understood the importance of textbooks, and the only minister who has insisted that there must be textbooks, for every pupil in every subject in every class?” Motshekga did her part by setting policies for every child to receive a textbook, argues Zille, while the Limpopo government failed in its responsibility to deliver those books.

In the Eastern Cape, Zille says the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) ruined efforts to reform the province’s education system when it refused to work with administrators after they tried to get educators to where they are needed. “Sadtu won because they know how to wield their power in the ANC’s internal power struggles,” offers Zille.

In sum, Zille believes Motshekga’s a good leader, hamstrung by other stakeholders: “She has supported programmes to test learner achievement; she has approved performance contracts and assessments for teachers and principals (vigorously opposed by Sadtu); she has supported rigorous time management; and she is a great proponent of good textbooks. The problem is that she cannot get any of these policies implemented without sufficient capacity in the provinces and the co-operation of Sadtu.” It’s a refreshing view, opposed to the pitchfork mobs usually out for the minister’s head, but it wasn’t left unchallenged.

Equal Education agreed the problems were more complex than just Motshekga’s success or failure, but it said Zille created a “straw-man” on the issue of norms and standards. The NGO, responding on Twitter, said they were not fighting for “state-of-the-art” or “idealistic” policies, as Zille claimed, but basic infrastructure.

It said 3,544 schools have no electricity, 2,402 don’t have a water supply, 2,703 don’t have fencing, and 913 are without toilets. Both Equal Education and Section27 have criticised Motshekga for continuing to drag her feet on the issue. They said the department’s draft norms and standards for school infrastructure was lacking because it would fail to ensure adequate learning conditions ­– on issues such as electricity, water, toilets, libraries, science labs, fencing and computers.

It’s hardly “state-of-the-art” stuff and Treasury had allocated funds to the Department of Education to meet the infrastructure backlog, much of which was subsequently withdrawn due to non-spending.

It’s also difficult to absolve the minister of responsibility in the Limpopo textbook crisis. Under Motshekga’s watch (not the provincial government’s) NGOs reported how difficult it was to work with the education department as it continuously denied there was a problem and misrepresented its performance on delivery. After Motshekga said she had fired the man responsible, it was revealed he was actually offered another post.

Working with unions remains a serious challenge. Sadtu’s relationship with Motshekga and basic education department head Bobby Soobrayan is hostile, with the union wanting both axed. In the Eastern Cape, Zille argues that Sadtu’s influence in the ANC meant it was able to curtail the intervention team’s efforts to transform the system (others might add: Motshekga’s position as ANC Women’s League head gives her the political leverage to keep her job). The national government’s failed intervention, however, remains a blot on Motshekga’s CV. She couldn’t do what she set out to.

But for the Western Cape premier, the situation is a perfect example of what many say about the ANC: it has some capable leaders but at provincial and municipal levels it’s hampered by corrupt and incompetent officials and a precarious alliance to unionists. It’s hard to argue with and it sets the DA up for an election pitch.

“It is time that everyone (especially political commentators) begins to understand how powerful provinces actually are in the delivery of health and education,” writes Zille. “In a democracy, voters get the government the majority voted for, which is the government they deserve. Voters hold the solution in their hands. And they should use it to elect competent provincial governments, or blame themselves.”

Meaning, voters should choose the DA, because examples show it has been able to work with Motshekga in the Western Cape.

The DA wants to get votes on a platform of service delivery (if it can just get the pesky perceptions it’s a party of whites out of the way) and in education delivery at the provincial level. It won’t win the 2014 national elections, but wants to start governing in provinces other than Western Cape. If voters start holding their provincial governments accountable on education, realising the balances of power on the issue, they have cause to vote for the opposition.

Yet the public’s opinion of Motshekga is unlikely to change. As Zille acknowledged during the Limpopo crisis, “This is how things work in established democracies: Ministers are required to fall on their swords even if the meltdown is not of their making.” Many would say Motshekga allowed the meltdown, while others would argue she failed to take the problems seriously. Whether Zille is right or Motshekga is at fault won’t hurt the DA. Either the minister or the ANC’s provincial leaders will be blamed. DM

Photo: Helen Zille (Reuters), Angie Motshekga (SAPA)


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