William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Helen loves Angie: How politics makes for strange bedfellows

What is not said is often more important than what is. The response of Democratic Alliance (DA) parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko to this week’s cabinet reshuffle is a case in point.

Mazibuko welcomed the exit of Communications Minister Dina Pule but found inexplicable the retention of Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Peterson, and Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu. The DA wanted the firing also of Collins Chabane, minister in the Presidency, Labour Minister Mildred Olifant, and State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele.

So have you yet spotted the missing name, the royal game, that the DA won’t set its sights on? Here are some clues.

It’s a minister whose department has performed lamentably, the failure of which has incalculable negative knock-on effects. It’s a minister who has a cavalier attitude to court orders and whose department is rife with corruption. It’s a minister who’s been cowed by the unions that are running her sector into the ground.

That’s right, folks. It’s Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga. The Inkatha Freedom Party lamented her survival as a minister, so did Agang. Not the DA, which has a strange infatuation with her.

Not always so. Last year the DA shadow minister of basic education, Annette Lovemore, launched an impassioned attack on Motshekga’s performance, describing the situation in the sector as ‘tragic’. She questioned Motshekga’s use of EduSolutions, the company behind the failed delivery of textbooks and the target of a R320-million corruption investigation, and asked why Motshekga had continued to promote EduSolutions despite its ‘history of fraud and incompetence’.

Astonishingly, first out of the blocks to defend Motshekga was the DA national leader Helen Zille. In a public slap-down of the parliamentary DA, Zille said that firing Motshekga ‘would treat a superficial symptom, but leave the root causes unaddressed’, that the education crisis had taken many years to develop and that without Motshekga ‘things would probably go from bad to worse’.

That is not so different from Zuma’s shrugging off blame for the education crisis and simply laying it at the door of apartheid. As to the situation possibly deteriorating further if Motshekga were to be removed, that is of course the risk with any ministerial change.

The likely explanation of such DA protectiveness across normally bristling party divides is that it’s a tacit quid pro quo. Motshekga, whatever her faults, is pragmatic about not interfering when something is clearly working. This is critical for the DA-ruled Western Cape, if is to able to continue making the changes it believes necessary to improve educational outcomes in the province.

The parliamentary DA has since taken Zille’s lead, with a noticeably muted approach to Motshekga. When DA supporters last year voted their assessments of President’s Jacob Zuma’s cabinet, Motshekga was bottom of the class with an F. But when the DA’s annual ‘cabinet report card’ was issued, the symbol had been mysteriously upgraded to a far more respectable D.

Motshekga recently dismissed civil-society activists like Equal Education as a ‘group of white adults organising black African children with half-truths’. There was outrage, including from the Institute of Race Relations and the likes of former National Prosecuting Authority head Vusi Pikoli, objecting that this was racist. But the normally quick-to-the-jugular DA hasn’t murmured a word of criticism.

This week Business Day noted in an editorial that after Motshekga’s ‘dishonest attempt’ to discredit the demands of Equal Education, ‘unsurprisingly, Mr Zuma offered no public rebuke of his charge, however gentle … his failure to remove her from her portfolio when he reshuffled his Cabinet this week makes her continued tenure something much more serious than mere oversight from an absent-minded head of state’. Business Day appears not to have noticed that its favourite political party has been equally remiss in its oversight.

Not everyone in the DA buys this soft-pedalling. Former parliamentary leader Athol Trollip says that he is ‘gobsmacked’ at Motshekga’s omission from the list of ministers that DA wants sacked. He said that aside from her incompetence at a national level, Motshekga’s heralded intervention to sort out the chaotic Eastern Cape education department had been an ‘utter failure’.

But for now Angie is Helen’s squeeze and though they don’t like it, most DA public representatives will toe the line.

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