The African National Congress’ policy conference kicked off in Johannesburg this week. Its intellectual equivalent of mud wrestling was over a truckload of documents analysing party organisational renewal, nationalisation, job creation, investment and land redistribution.

There was also President Jacob Zuma’s catchily titled but ponderously composed Second Transition centrepiece of policy proposals, which is his personal manifesto for a second term masquerading as deep thought. His deputy and potential rival Kgalema Motlanthe cruelly dismissed it in passing as as ‘a smattering of Marxist of jargon’, basically turgid and conceptually inadequate. Worryingly for Zuma, many of the delegates agreed.

Nowhere among all this earnest introspection, however, was there anything at all about book burning. For this was the illuminating juxtaposition. While ANC delegates lined up to flex their mental muscles to shape South Africa’s future, just a few hundred kilometres north outside Polokwane, the future of another generation was going up in flames. Literally.

Thousands of never-distributed school textbooks were being shredded and incinerated in Limpopo, where 5 000 schools had still not received their 2012 curriculum textbooks six months into the academic year. The books, many new and in plastic shrinkwrap, included volumes in English, Pedi and Afrikaans for maths, science and economics, for Aids education, as well as piles of poetry and plays.

Among those deemed ‘unusable’ because of curriculum changes, even as library reference works, were Shakespeare’s Macbeth and a biography of Nelson Mandela. The Basic Education ministry was meanwhile scrambling to meet a second court-ordered deadline for all outstanding textbook deliveries in the province.

It is disconcerting that education officials in an education ministry believe that no book is somehow preferable to a slightly dated version. It is pathetic that officials in Limpopo and possibly the Eastern Cape – the other province where civil society NGOs have humiliated the Basic Education ministry with due performance on delivery court orders and where the national ministry has taken over the failed provincial departments – are so slow to distribute textbooks that syllabus changes render them ‘unusable’.

While there is little common sense in continually changing syllabi and the having to pulp the textbooks, there might be commercial sense. EduSolutions, a company managed, according to Beeld, by senior former government officials, held the R700m annual tender for Limpopo’s school textbooks. Presumably, the more books scrapped, the more they have to produce.

This week EduSolutions, which was fired by Limpopo’s education administrator a few months back, lost a court application to be reinstated. It boasts that it already manages ‘the entire supply chain’ for public schools in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng and says it will sue for damages.

It emerged in court that EduSolutions – the company motto is ‘one hand washes the other’ and its website chronicles its ties with Zuma and his foundations – was one of 23 tenderers for the Limpopo contract. It won when the other 22 were all disqualified without reasons being given. Criminal investigations are under way.

None of this is particularly unusual. There can scarcely be anyone left in the country who will be surprised at what is just another example of the most inept and corrupt administration that South Africans have yet had to endure. And we thought the Nats were incompetent wankers…

What is notable, though, is how the debacle reflects the poison of ignorance that spreads when education fails. The ANC is obsessed with theory, with jargon, with elaborate Marxist constructs. As if policy will miraculously translate into progress.

Rather get the textbooks to schools and teachers into classes. More of a challenge than all the airy-fairy cerebral prancing at the conference, but ultimately more effective.

The final, half-baked, response from the ANC Youth League says it all. ‘We demand that all be given the obligatory pass as the situation is stimulated by the government itself. The lack of support materials … comes with a lot of misfortunes to learners.’ The SA Democratic Teachers Union response is similarly crass and ill-considered. The only issue to their minds is that if their members have to work extra hours in order that learners can catch up, overtime pay is non negotiable, failing which they will strike.

The ANC can have as many policy conferences as it wishes. None will make up for the present lacuna in leadership.



  • This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.


William Saunderson-Meyer

This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day....

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