Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi ‘wants to build social cohesion in Gauteng schools’
Gauteng MEC for Education Panyaza Lesufi sat down with Daily Maverick to discuss his department’s commitment to building ‘social cohesion’ in the province’s learning institutions, curbing school violence and advancing township schools.
Panyaza Lesufi arrives at his ninth-floor office in Simmonds Street, Johannesburg accompanied by his spokesperson, Steve Mabona. His initial statement, when asked about his department’s stance on advancing monolingual schools, is: “I don’t want to enter that debate.”
However, with much hesitation, he goes on to describe his office’s commitment to introducing English in strictly Afrikaans schools in the province as a means to “promote non-racialism in the country”.
“My point of departure is to build social cohesion. If you can’t build non-racialism in the classroom, you’re not going to have it in the country,” he said.
“This country has a responsibility to build a strong base of non-racialism and to build that, it starts in the classroom.”
Under his leadership, the department has been critical of monolingual schools over what it sees as an attempt to use language to exclude learners from poor backgrounds. His stance has met with resistance from some cohorts who accuse him and the department of being anti-Afrikaans – a view he has repeatedly denied.
Lesufi became MEC for education in May 2014. In 2019, after the May general elections, he was moved briefly from the education portfolio to Finance and e-Government. His re-appointment into the education department came after a public outcry to have him reinstated for another political term.
He is widely viewed as a leader who prioritises his public service work and rarely allows his political leadership in the Gauteng ANC caucus to interfere.
His first political term began with a focus on advancing equal education access, evidenced with the amendment of the school feeder zones policy and the introduction of an online school placement system.
In the past, school feeder zones – a system used to determine whether a learner should be admitted to a school or not – were reduced to a 5km radius, favouring learners who live within that radius of a school or whose parents work in the area.
Out of desperation, parents would give fake work or home addresses in an attempt to secure admission at schools perceived to be the best performing.
A unanimous 2016 Constitutional Court judgment then gave the MEC the onus to determine feeder zones for any public school.
Since its introduction in 2015, the online admissions system for Grade 1 and Grade 8 has been criticised and the department was recently accused of inefficiency by the Institute of Race Relations following the chaos that erupted over learners who remained unplaced months after applying.
Even though the department has managed to admit all Grade 1 and Grade 8 learners into schools for next year, measures taken to guarantee placement of all pupils included increasing capacity in schools to make room for more learners.
Lesufi defended the department’s decision to encourage schools to increase capacity.
“I would rather have overcrowding than having them being raped at home. I would rather have them playing in the school fields than being at home catching diseases [or] attacked by people.”
Lesufi said the idea that the department is overcrowding classrooms is “misplaced” considering the fact that admissions are for only two of the grades.
“The problem is that we as South Africans have not calculated the price of children being murdered, raped, attacked because they don’t go to school.
“I can’t tell a parent that the school is full, keep your child until next year. Do you think parents will be happy?”
Though Lesufi’s intentions to have every child in school at the risk of overcrowding might be good, the reality is that cramped classrooms do not make for a conducive learning environment for teachers and learners.
“It’s not a permanent thing. We are saying, while we are still finding ourselves, children can be playing and looking at books.
“It does not mean it’s a permanent thing, it’s a creative method of keeping them in our classrooms. When the new financial year kicks in, we can, for example, buy a new desk, build an extra classroom or bring a mobile classroom and move them.”
Ironically, an analysis conducted by the Portfolio Committee on Education in the Gauteng legislature showed that by the end of the second quarter of the 2018/19 financial year the department had spent only 24% of its infrastructure development budget. The analysis was done using the department’s presentation to the committee.
Not only is this number lower than the 50% standard set by National Treasury relating to how much money provincial government departments should have spent by the second quarter of a financial year, but it is also a contradiction considering how the department struggled to find space for some learners and infrastructure in schools remains inadequate.
Lesufi was adamant that the department is not underspending on infrastructure: “It’s not true by the way… I know it comes from AfriForum,” he said of the 24% figure.
But he sang a different tune when told the figures were presented by his department before the Portfolio Committee on Education.
“You can check, even last year’s [figures] are like that. You can only fix schools when schools are closed. You can’t fix schools when learners are in the classroom. They must close, then you do it,” he said.
“So it’s between now in November and January that you will see a higher expenditure pattern in the department because that’s when we deal with those things. During the month of June when schools are closed, that’s when we do maintenance. It’s been like this for the last four years.”
He also downplayed the fact that the department has only built one new school instead of the targeted six since the beginning of the current financial year.
“When you say, this financial year we’ve built only one school it’s not true. Because I know in January next year we’ll be opening four new schools.
“Remember, we don’t build schools as the department. We rely on the department of infrastructure to build schools on our behalf. We have just met with them last week to raise concerns.”
This despite their second-quarter report saying only one school has been built.
Lesufi rejected the claim that his department was having challenges with utilising the infrastructure budget despite noting that “infrastructure challenges persisted in the period under-reporting” in the presentation to the portfolio committee on 22 November.
“Underspending in this programme was inclusive of the delays due to the volume of maintenance tenders received (over 4,000 bids), the finalisation was delayed,” pointed out one of the notes in the presentation.
The document lists numerous reasons for the underspending, such as under-performing contractors and community disruptions.
Lesufi agrees that the department does find itself in a position where contractors do shoddy work, but because they work on a system of “work first, and invoice later” they do not incur significant losses. He added that contractors that under-perform are “blacklisted”.
The MEC has said in the past that a major achievement for his first political term is how the department invests in township schools. He blames spatial inequalities that were inherited from the apartheid education system for the stigma often attached to these schools.
“Township schools are victims of their placement, but they are doing extremely well. We are [the] number one province in the country because of township schools.
“Purely because they are located in townships, there is an assumption that there’s no performance.”
Lesufi said from 2020 the department will introduce a grading system – “like your hotels” – for these schools. He says this will enable parents to “choose schools on the basis of tangible evidence”.
“[The] [m]ajority of our township schools are on a paperless platform. We advanced ICT, the introduction of the Schools of Specialisation,” he said.
“I’m not saying we’ve done exceptionally well, but at least we have turned the corner and there is a process, integrated strategies, and programmes to change township schools.”
In 2018, township schools achieved a matric pass rate of 84.74%, an increase from 79.13% in 2017, and about 41 of the schools achieved a 95% pass.
Schools in Gauteng have become places for violent attacks such as stabbings and rape – acts perpetrated by learners and educators.
In August, the department announced that 187 cases of bullying and 107 cases of violence and assault were reported.
Lesufi said the department has since developed a comprehensive strategy to deal with violence in schools proactively, rather than on a reactive basis.
“We are running a programme and I’m glad that it’s starting to yield some dividends. In the last two months, we’ve not had major stabbing events. So we identified 5,000 learners that are potential bullies or that can stab other learners.
“We went to each and every school to say: in this school, who are learners that you think have the character to harm others, stab, bring guns?”
Lesufi said the 5,000 learners that the department identified have been undergoing anger management support and psychological counselling.
Additionally, the department identified 20 schools that often report acts of violence and assigned a police unit that can quickly respond to any reported incidents in those schools.
The department’s key priority in 2020?
“The first one is ECD [Early Childhood Development]. We are moving ECD from the Department of Social Development to Education. We are also introducing something we call ‘multi-certificated learner’. In each and every grade a learner must get a certain skill so that even if they drop out, they’ve got a skill to fall on.” DM