Over the past few weeks, calls for Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to be fired have grown as the Limpopo textbook scandal has unfolded.
Yesterday, the Sunday Times reported that there had been calls in the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) national executive committee lekgotla for her to go. But both President Jacob Zuma and ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe have suggested she may stay. The decision is fraught with political complications for Zuma, even though her critics believe the case against her is pretty clear cut.
When Motshekga took office, it seemed an obvious choice as she had been Gauteng Education MEC for several years and had an interest in the job. It was also a promotion for someone who had campaigned vigorously for Zuma ahead of Polokwane. And as the leader of the ANC Women’s League, it was a way of keeping someone with their own constituency within the Cabinet tent.
Motshekga is still the leader of the women’s league, and in an ANC election year, Zuma would be loath to remove her from her position. The league carries a substantial number of votes at this year’s Mangaung conference, and so to alienate it would be dangerous. This means Zuma also has to tread carefully should he want to keep her in his Cabinet, but change her position. The ascension of Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to the African Union means that Zuma has a chance to promote someone, but not to alienate anyone during a reshuffle. Should he move Motshekga, that opportunity would disappear.
Whatever happens in the Cabinet, the political message will be about Motshekga, the headlines will be about whether she stays or goes, and any move will be seen as punishment. But should Zuma not move her, he will be criticised by education groups for not taking action.
Education is a hot-button issue. The defence that the ANC’s enemies are simply out to damage the party is not available to Zuma in this instance. It is also a pretty clear-cut problem. The message from opposition parties will be simple: they can deliver textbooks, the ANC cannot. This adds to the pressure.
However within the ANC, Motshekga has a defence. She can claim that while she had overall political responsibility, her room for action was limited, possibly by Zuma himself. It was the national government intervention in Limpopo that precipitated this crisis. That was a Cabinet decision, and thus all the ministers involved should have foreseen there would be service delivery problems.
She can also point to Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s claim at the start of the intervention, that there had been deliberate "sabotage" of services by provincial officials. As this relates to the bigger internal ANC fight between Zuma and the Limpopo ANC (including its leader, Cassel Mathale and former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema) she could explain that she had been caught in the cross-fire.
In Parliament last year Motshekga lamented the "institutional paralysis" that had set in in the Eastern Cape education department, as provincial officials disobeyed national officials who gave them orders as part of her intervention there. She could then find some traction with a claim that actually the real problem was Zuma’s refusal to allow her to fire those officials, for fear of offending the South African Democratic Teachers Union.
Zuma has generally only taken action when forced to. In this case, most of the pressure to act comes from outside the ANC. It is only if that pressure comes from within the party that he is likely to make a move.
This column also appeared in The Business Day.
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