Analysis: Zille continues to bat for Motshekga against education activists

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DA leader Helen Zille this week devoted her newsletter, SA Today, to a further defence of Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s resistance to implementing norms and standards for school infrastructure, a campaign which NGO Equal Education (EE) has framed as imperative to the improvement of South Africa’s education system.

Zille’s stance has seemed surprising because it’s largely been treated as axiomatic in the media that Motshekga is on the wrong side of the argument.

It probably doesn’t need pointing out that the DA is not normally shy about identifying the ruling party’s real or perceived failures of governance. This is part of the role of an opposition party, and the DA executes it particularly zealously. Any journalist who receives the DA’s multiple press releases every day condemning, criticising, objecting to, and calling for X inquiry can attest to this.

Helen Zille’s support of Angie Motshekga in Motshekga’s protracted legal tussle with Equal Education has thus raised some eyebrows, especially because Zille has been expressing it consistently now for a number of months: there’s no room for ambiguity here.

In a newsletter in May, Zille described Motshekga as “unfairly maligned”, but this wasn’t even the half of it. In July she said Motshekga was a “soft target for many journalists”, and that Motshekga was in fact the best Basic Education minister that the DA had worked with.

This week, in a newsletter titled “Angie and I”, Zille elaborated on her defence of the longstanding resistance of Motshekga to publish norms and standards for school infrastructure. Equal Education activists have been lobbying for this step for almost four years, and on 11 July they secured a court order compelling Minister Motshekga to prescribe minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure by the end of November 2013.

Equal Education hailed the outcome as a victory; they have consistently maintained that standardising the requirements for school infrastructure would not only improve learning outcomes but also play a vital role in levelling historical inequalities in the facilities available to previously ‘white’ schools and ‘black’ schools. Zille, who is known to have a particular interest in education partly as a result of her previous role as provincial Education MEC, doesn’t share EE’s opinions on the matter.

In this week’s newsletter, Zille labelled EE’s campaign as being “misdirected in substance, style and strategy”. Her belief is that “guidelines” for infrastructure would be more sensible and achievable than rigid “norms and standards”; that bringing all schools up to the required standard of infrastructure would amount to the misdirection of billions of rands; and that the issue of quality teaching counts more than quality infrastructure. “World-wide, good teaching has a far greater impact on education outcomes than any other variable,” she writes.

EE Deputy General Secretary Doron Isaacs told the Daily Maverick that it’s not a case of one or the other. “We know teaching is crucial and we know infrastructure is crucial,” Isaacs said. “But it must be said that nothing devalues education more than the conditions in thousands of schools without proper classrooms, toilets, water to drink, and light to see with.”

But there are other education experts who think that the immediate emphasis on upgrading infrastructure to improve South Africa’s school system may be a misleading avenue. Professor Elizabeth Henning, director of the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Education Practice Research, told the Daily Maverick: “I see many beautiful new schools and go into them and what happens inside the shiny new classrooms is still the same.”

Henning believes that an environment that is conducive to learning is created largely by the level of care of school managers and teachers. “Civil society may want to do things that are tangible and immediately measurable,” Henning said. “I would say that civil society should first, or also, invest in people before buildings, or in food, or in attracting top graduates for the teaching profession, or getting bursary schemes going to get more top young minds into teaching.”

In a presentation at the University of Johannesburg in March last year, historian and educational activist Nomalanga Mkhize explored the question of why the teaching profession had slipped in status over the past two decades for black professionals in particular. “Teaching was once one of the top careers one could pursue as a black person,” Mkhize said. “It no longer holds the kind of economic primacy it used to, and thus no longer the same social prestige.”

Replacing teachers as the top earning stratum in black society were government bureaucrats and high-ranking corporate professionals, Mkhize suggested; with “new middle-income” professionals like media practitioners and lawyers also occupying a rung now higher than the ranks of teachers, nurses, police and so on.

But the problem was wider than the status of teaching, Mkhize maintained, and came down to the general value of education. How was it, Mkhize asked, that “education came to be treated with such disrespect and disdain by the educated black professionals who administer it and why on earth was there no parents’ uprising?”

One reason for the devaluing of education could be that “other forms of social advancement, particularly political association”, now offer a quicker route to improve the class prospects of black people than education does. This is a point that University of the Free State Rector Jonathan Jansen also made last year; a problem, he says, is that there is now “a visible lack of connection between education and economic well-being” in many communities.

“The dominant discourse on the ‘right to education’ de-links the problem of education from the broader class realities of society, treating education as a socio-economic package to secure a place in the existing order,” Mkhize said. But education is not a magic bullet on its own; “we keep tinkering and tweaking the ‘dysfunctional’ education system separate from all the other factors which reproduce economic marginalization, ie social exclusion, geographic inequality, gender inequality, violence.”

In this view of the problems in the education system as being deep-rooted, cultural and complex, the prospect of improved infrastructure in schools might seem to fail to address pressing underlying issues. Scott Clarke, Executive Director of Amanda Development – which works with schools and the community in Philippi to remove barriers to learning – says that many of these points are related, however.

“I agree with the general assertion that infrastructure without good teaching isn’t the answer, but I think we’re hard-pressed to say the infrastructure just doesn’t matter if the teaching is good enough,” Clarke told the Daily Maverick.

“I think that while it's true that great teaching can overcome a lot, it's problematic that so many of our solutions to an issue as complex as education rely upon outstanding individuals. Working in the midst of dilapidated infrastructure and grinding poverty requires really special teachers to get the best from their students.”

When the Department promulgates the norms and standards as per EE’s wishes, it will allow students, teachers and parents to take the government to court if their schools do not possess the minimum infrastructure features prescribed by the norms. It would appear that a lot more litigation might be on the horizon. This is a prospect that Jonathan Jansen, for one, doesn’t appear to relish.

“It should concern us, the tendency to believe that we can resolve complex problems of institutionalised dysfunction in the administration and management of schools by going to the courts,” Jansen said in an address to the Institute of Race Relations in September last year.

“I understand of course the frustration of activists and parents to establish functionality in the schools by holding government to account for the delivery of basic resources to all schools,” Jansen said. “But as we now know, government ignores or fails to deliver on court-established deadlines, with no consequences. We also know that changing the long-established cultures of bureaucracies and of schools are much more complex and not responsive to legal injunction.”

EE’s Isaacs points out, though, that the prospect of legal action already exists for under-resourced schools. “Any school without toilets, without water, with 90 learners in a classroom, could approach a court tomorrow on the basis of a violation of the Constitution,” Isaacs says. “They don’t need norms and standards to do that. Norms and standards is the beginning of a rational approach to delivery and accountability, and hopefully making it unnecessary to [extensively litigate in future]. But what counts is whether the conditions in schools change.”

EE has never claimed that an upgrade in school infrastructure will be the sole golden ticket to solve South Africa’s education crisis. Even if norms and standards are applied across the board, additional strategies will undoubtedly be necessary to combat more intractable, less tangible systemic challenges – like raising the social value of education, or the cultural associations of teaching as a profession. For those, we’ll need the thinking caps of both civil society and politicians. 

Picture Caption: Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille is seen at the Johannesburg Constitutional Court on Friday, 5 October 2012 following a ruling that National Director of Public Prosecutions Menzi Simelane's appointment was unconstitutional. Picture by: Werner Beukes/SAPA


Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

Article Source: The Daily Maverick