In a speech this past week, Basic Education Minister, Angie Motshekga, decried the state of education in “former African schools”: the severely reduced teaching times, the rampant lack of textbooks, inadequate school infrastructure, and the promotion of failing education department administrators. As a result of these so-called “elephants in the room”, these schools comprise “a Cinderella system deprived of resources and characterised by pockets of disasters… this is akin to a national crisis”.
Motshekga’s comments ought to be lauded for their frank, unflinching honesty – seldom has the public seen such candid self-critique amongst government elites. We are encouraged that this candour will instigate a sorely needed open and sincere conversation about the Department’s failures, and the areas where urgent intervention is needed. But her comments overlook another glaring elephant in the room: the Eastern Cape Department of Education, the worst performing province amidst this national crisis, is still directly under her administration.
In response to a crisis of under-staffing, scholar transport, school infrastructure, and financial mismanagement, the Department of Basic Education invoked section 100(1)(b) of the Constitution in March 2011, taking over the Eastern Cape’s provincial department. It soon took over Limpopo’s as well. To the DBE’s credit, its administration of the Eastern Cape’s Department yielded some positive results; they stabilised the 2012-2013 budget and arrangement payment for thousands of teachers who had not received their salaries. The minister was pleased with how the national takeover went. In September 2013, she proudly claimed, “I am now confident that the Eastern Cape and Limpopo can live without us. The provinces have stabilised.”
Motshekga suggested a return of administration to provincial leadership. This transition took place in Limpopo, but it never occurred in the Eastern Cape. Despite fading from national memory, to this day the provincial Department is still legally under national administration. Under DBE’s watch, teaching and learning in the Eastern Cape have all but collapsed. Nearly 2,000 schools still lie dormant on the Department’s school infrastructure priority list; hundreds of thousands of learners continue to learn in mud structures, overcrowded classrooms, schools without safe toilets, electricity or water, to name a few of the Department’s egregious violations of the norms and standards for school infrastructure.
Scholar transport remains a province-wide crisis: On Tuesday this week, hundreds of learners were left stranded 15km from school. Textbooks are delayed again this year due to straightforward administrative errors and delays. Despite teaching shortages, MEC Mandla Makupula in December announced a 3,000 post cut for this school year. Underlying it all, the provincial Department remains without a permanent head since superintendent-general Mthunywa Ngonzo was suspended in July 2014 over an irregular R46 million tender (he continues to receive a R1.6 million salary). The effects of these failures are palpable. The matric pass rate declined this year by 8.6% to just 56.8%, the worst provincial pass rate in the country by a substantial margin. Less than half of grade 2 learners enrolled in 2005 passed matric this year, marking just a 40.7% cohort pass rate.
The province is in nothing less than a state of emergency. Even officials at the office of the Premier this past August called upon the legislature to “start afresh” given how unstable the Department has become. For all of this to happen under DBE’s administration is deplorable at best. Section 100(1)(b) of the Constitution is not written lightly; it is designed as a last resort after a province has failed to fulfil a constitutional or legislative obligation. There can be no doubt that one of the most fundamental obligations is to provide South African children with an adequate basic education.
It does not simply prescribe an advisory or even a directive role for the national executive, an option featured instead in section 100(1)(a). Instead, section b states that the national executive itself can intervene to ensure the fulfilment of the state’s obligation, including “assuming responsibility for the relevant obligation.”
Put simply, Motshekga’s DBE is directly implicated in the “national crisis” in education about which she so poignantly spoke just days ago. The DBE does not simply oversee primary and secondary education in the Eastern Cape; under section 100(1)(b), it is currently responsible for provision of education in the province. This failure of administration raises two equally vital sets of questions: how could this provincial administration go so frighteningly awry, and what does this mean for how the crisis must be addressed moving forward?
Motshekga’s statements in late 2013 indicating her faith in the Eastern Cape’s department could be read in any of a number of ways including political self-preservation then. At face value, it reveals that at the very least, DBE did not take seriously the widely known education crisis in the Eastern Cape. Instead, it did virtually the bare minimum called for in handling the Department’s gross financial mismanagement. While this was a significant accomplishment and ought not to be discounted, it hardly represents the constitutional obligation to assume responsibility of the Department.
Moreover, this could not have been because the crisis more broadly had abated. Just months before Motshekga announced her renewed confidence in the Eastern Cape’s education administration in 2013, the head of the Department himself reported in an affidavit to the Grahamstown High Court that the Department was in shambles. The Department’s help in solving financial mismanagement only scraped the surface of the problem. The superintendent-general reported a complete and utter collapse of labour relations, procurement, and human resources.
Other less charitable interpretations of DBE’s gross inaction include political machinations by the national executive; the takeover of the Eastern Cape’s Department of Education may well have been a political smoke-screen, diverting attention from the simultaneous takeover in Limpopo in 2011 which was arguably part of a plot to embarrass and dethrone Julius Malema, who was then ANCYL president. In essence it would have been asked, how do you take over Limpopo, and and not the Eastern Cape Education Department? Whatever the root cause, this dismal failure to fulfil its constitutional duties under section 100(1)(b) has resulted in little, but the prolonged and intensified education crisis in the Eastern Cape. We should not be surprised, then, that parents and learners have taken to the streets in droves. In the first two weeks of school this year alone, nearly 60 schools have been shut by parents. Everywhere from the now famous northern areas of Port Elizabeth protests to the lesser known isolated cases, such as Overton Primary School near East London, what we are seeing is the physical manifestation of the deep hurt that parents and learners have been enduring for years as their schools have failed them.
Anyone who has spoken to the parents will know they are not protesting lightly. Their decisions to take their children out of school represent sheer desperation after years of either neglect (or worse), countless broken promises by politicians and the Eastern Cape Department that lie in documents on administrators’ shelves. These are not promises for iPads, Smart Boards, or extravagant sports-fields; they are for safe classrooms, basic sanitation, and enough textbooks and teachers for their children.
The Eastern Cape Department certainly stands culpable for these years of failure. For the parents and students who have been protesting, Equal Education, and other stakeholders, are doing everything we can hold them to account while support meaningful reform. But given the national Department’s takeover, DBE must be held to account as well. Where are the reports detailing what has taken place during this takeover? When has the Department shared its findings, processes, efforts, and reforms with the public? Where have the opportunities been for public engagement?
Moving forward, we not only need DBE to account for these egregious years of administration, but a renewed commitment to reform as well. What we need is Motshekga and her Department to take to heart her comments this past week on the dismal state of public education, and turn them into action and material change. What we need is a fresh start to the section 100(1)(b) takeover – only this time, done right. DM
Tshepo Motsepe is the General Secretary of Equal Education, a movement of learners, parents and teachers striving for quality and equality in education.