Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO

THE number of times the courts have had to instruct South Africa’s democratic governments to do their job is cause for serious alarm. The latest case is Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga being instructed (for the umpteenth time) by the Bhisho High Court on Thursday to fulfil her most basic responsibilities.

The court ordered her to formalise and publish norms and standards for school infrastructure. This follows numerous court orders compelling her department to belatedly distribute books to hapless pupils in Limpopo, an instruction her officials botched anyway.

Along with primary healthcare, education is South Africa’s top priority. The millions of unemployed, hopeless and desperate youths who line streets and binge drink to kill time are largely unemployable. This is a direct consequence of an education system that is unable to make them literate and numerate.

Someday soon they will conclude that our democracy offers them no hope for the future and rise against the very institutions that are meant to entrench it.

Successive finance ministers have put the public purse where their mouth is by prioritising spending on education. The follow-through from the department has been pathetic, to say the least. Rural children continue to fight insurmountable odds, such as holding class under trees, classrooms made of mud bricks, and a lack of sanitation, teachers and libraries.

Equal Education’s — and the rest of South Africa’s — demand of Ms Motshekga is quite simple: tell us what infrastructure is required to make a school a school. Ms Motshekga’s failure to publish norms and standards within a time frame agreed to with her demonstrates that she either does not care sufficiently to get this done or has no idea what these standards should be.

The rosy promises of jobs and economic growth by Ms Motshekga’s colleagues have long ago rung hollow because of her department’s lethargic performance in the most elementary of tasks. Also, President Jacob Zuma’s own promise at Mangaung last December and in his most recent state of the nation address, that education would from now on be a non-negotiable priority, is no longer worth the paper it is written on.

Incredibly, when Equal Education called Ms Motshekga out for failing to live up to her undertakings, she launched a disturbing tirade against Equal Education in a dishonest attempt to use race to discredit its demands.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Zuma offered no public rebuke of his charge, however gentle. She carried his and the ANC’s tacit endorsement, it seemed. 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.

No country can survive and prosper when it cannot educate its young and equip them to meet the increasing challenges of the modern age.

Publishing minimum norms and standards would bring much-needed accountability to the education system and establish a firm basis on which parents and communities can help ensure good-quality education for their children. When the authorities are unable to say what basics are needed, then it is time to raise the alarm.

It is a terrible indictment of our country that fellow African countries with far fewer resources are able to do so much better than us. Perhaps Ms Motshekga and Mr Zuma would do well to recall the great Kenyan author, Ngugi wa Thiongo, when he observed that "if you want to maim the future of any society, you simply maim the children".

The real tragedy is that the person doing the maiming is not apartheid-era prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd, as Mr Zuma likes to claim, but a minister that he appointed, retains and oversees.