South Africa textbook saga tests Zuma's mettleBy BENON HERBERT OLUKA in Johannesburg | Saturday, August 11 2012 at 16:20
Since the Presidential Task Team appointed by South Africa’s leader Jacob Zuma delivered its preliminary report on July 30 on what has become known as the "textbook saga," the dust seems to have settled momentarily on a controversy that has shaken public confidence in leaders of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and threatened to uproot some government officials from their positions.
But that seems to be only the calm before yet another storm. This is because after President Zuma completes studying the preliminary report on the failure to deliver books to at least 4,000 schools in the Limpopo Province this year and the Presidential Task Team submits its final report by mid-August, his government will have to make a closely scrutinised decision.
Already, even before President Zuma reveals the findings of his Task Team, some influential bodies like the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC), the ANC Youth League (ANCYL), the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party and the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) have been leading calls for the resignation of Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, under whose watch the controversy unfolded.
The robust nature of the debate over the “Limpopo books” saga has also seen the Office of the Presidency come out to fend off accusations that President Zuma is dithering over how to handle the matter. In a statement released on July 31, just a day after he received the Presidential Task Team’s preliminary report, President Zuma’s office reiterated that the matter remains “a top priority” for his government.
“The President directed that there should be consequences for anyone found responsible for any wrongdoing that led to the delays in the delivery of books,” added the statement. “The President, having received a preliminary report, now awaits the final one from the Presidential task team led by the Deputy Minister of Finance Mr Nhlanhla Nene. He is dealing with the matter systematically and thoroughly, putting the interests of education and the children first.”
Genesis of the saga
The Limpopo textbook saga may have opened a can of worms on the administrative inefficiencies within the ANC government over the last few weeks, but experts believe the problem has been brewing for a long time.
Christiaan Visser, the director of the Textbook Development Institute, a non-governmental organisation based in Cape Town, says the genesis of the books saga dates back to more than a decade ago when the South Africa government adopted an outcomes-based education (OBE) initiative, in which textbooks were not considered a requirement for effective teaching and learning.
“Teachers were required to develop their own learning material from resources available on the internet and their immediate environment,” he noted in an opinion published in the Mail & Guardian newspaper. “But South Africa's publishing sector, which depends on education for 70 per cent of its turnover, continued to develop textbooks that tried to make sense of a nebulous curriculum that drove many textbook authors and teachers to distraction. The quality of many of these textbooks was suspect — and many are still in the system.”
When Ms Motshekga brought the curtain down on OBE in September 2010, Mr Visser says she restored the textbook as “the unassailable and essential resource” for quality teaching and learning. Additionally, according to Mr Visser, she hastily introduced workbooks to address many of the weaknesses she blamed on OBE, such as the disastrous literacy and numeracy levels among pupils compared with other countries.
The return of the textbooks was accompanied by the new curriculum assessment policy statements (Caps), which would replace OBE. However, according to Mr Visser, new textbooks had to be developed to support the introduction of Caps. The haste with which the changes were made, however, meant that a number of important issues were overlooked, and the haste with which some of the contracts were awarded eventually led to the current debacle.
By the time South Africa’s Department of Education and EduSolutions, the company which had won the tender to procure and deliver the textbooks, delivered the first batch to Limpopo last month, the delay had lasted seven months. And with only five months of the school year remaining, analysts say some of the learners will not have sufficient time to benefit from the books.
A tip of the iceberg?
If recent revelations are anything to go by, then it seems like the textbook saga in Limpopo is only the tip of the iceberg regarding the administrative inefficiencies that affect South Africa’s education system. Lindiwe Mazibuko, the parliamentary leader of the opposition DA, which is credited with blowing the whistle on the saga, says the textbook problems are more widespread.
“In Limpopo, our estimates from school monitoring show that around half of school children are without textbooks with less than half the school year to go. In Mpumalanga even the Premier concedes that there are massive book shortages, while in the Eastern Cape teachers are forced to make do with photo-copied material,” she told a DA jobs campaign rally in Polokwane on August 1.
Mr Visser says the textbook saga should be treated as a symptom of a major institutional problem at the department of education. He said: “The debacle confirmed what the sceptics have known for some time now, namely that the senior management of the department just do not have the experience, competence, ability or capacity to manage a massive system consisting of a bloated national education department, nine provincial departments, 81 district offices, 26,000 schools and 530,000 teachers providing learning to 12-million pupils, while it expends 20 per cent of the total national budget.”
As President Zuma’s government grapples for answers, the DA has challenged the ANC borrow a leaf from their provincial government in the Western Cape Province, where they say every learner receives a textbook for every core subject in their grade and a R466 million four-year plan is in place to buy additional books beyond what the national government funds.
If the ANC wants to improve the quality of basic education where it governs, says Ms Mazibuko, it may have to take up the DA’s five-point challenge. It includes providing a textbook for every child for every core subject in their grade, delivering all textbooks before the school year starts, eliminating corruption in the procurement of textbooks, ordering the right books for the right learners and matching the DA’s textbook funding allocation.
“We have to make sure that this never happens again anywhere in our country. Next year, let no child go without the textbooks they need to make a success of their studies,” said Ms Mazibuko.
For now, the Office of the Presidency is calling for calm as the nation awaits his decision. In the statement released on July 31, President Zuma’s office said: “We wish to assure the public that the Limpopo education matter is being attended to at the highest level, given the fact that education is an apex priority of government. The President will not rest until he gets to the bottom of the crisis and finds lasting solutions, working with his Cabinet who feel equally strongly about the need to ensure that this does not recur.”
Tough call for Zuma
Whatever President Zuma’s decision will be, it is likely to come under heavy scrutiny even from within sections of his own party. Reports in the South African media say the Presidential Task Team is likely to recommend that action be taken against Ms Motshekga, who also doubles as the President of the ANC Women’s League.
However, according to the Mail & Guardian, some senior ANC leaders have intimated to the newspaper that President Zuma is unlikely to kick her out of his Cabinet, since that action would risk upsetting a crucial voting bloc ahead of the ANC National Conference where he will seek the party’s backing for a second term in office.
President Zuma has also attempted to soothe public anger by announcing that while he waits for the Presidential Task Team to provide a final report, his government is already addressing some of the problems. In the July 31 statement,his office said he had directed the education ministry that while completing the current delivery process, they should also work with the national Treasury and the province to ensure that adequate resources are made available and planning is done for the timely procurement and delivery of next year’s textbooks in Limpopo and other provinces.
“Another problem that has to be solved is the gap that exists with regards to the implementation of Section 100 constitutional interventions in the provinces. There is no law that outlines exactly how this should be done. To remedy the situation, government has introduced the Monitoring, Support and Intervention Bill to regulate the national interventions. The Presidency and the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs are prioritising the finalisation of this crucial legislation as directed by the President early this month,” added the statement.
The changes suggested by President Zuma could ensure that a similar problem does not arise next year. But to a South African public that is growing weary of the administrative inefficiencies in the ANC government, the real test for President Zuma before he seeks re-election for a second term is how he deals with the individuals in government whose decision making led to the textbook saga in the first place.
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