Helen Zille and Eastern Cape Education Crisis

by Unathi Kondile

As the education crisis in the Eastern Cape takes its toll, there are some in our midst who have seen this as a proverbial gold mine. They have adorned themselves in all sorts of mining gear and headed on a looting spree – feeding off the miseries of our children’s education plight.

It was a sunny Tuesday morning (20/03/2012) as birds chirped outside and humans tweeted on Twitter when I came across a rather questionable early morning exchange between Premier Helen Zille (@HelenZille) and @Vuyisaq – the discussion was on education. I think it was around 7am. Two responses later Zille dropped the R-word. Now I am not implying that @Vuyisaq was in cahoots with Zille on deliberately igniting this campaign so early in the day. I’m not.

That was the beginning. I, personally, did not take offence to the use of this word, as its straightforward interpretation reflects reality.

As the day progressed, the R-word suddenly became a bone of contention. It then dawned on me that something was happening on Twitter. A ploy of sorts was panning out and working in favour of Helen Zille. Soon this R-word debate was going to hit mainstream media and pave the way for Helen Zille’s by-elections campaign trail in Port Elizabeth today (27/03/2012). As predicted all papers and online news sites were running this R-word spat, even the Eastern Cape’s Daily Dispatch ran it here.

Thank you Twitter. You’ve been darlings. One of the things we undermine about our politicians is that they possess the ability to think ahead – some employ thinkers and digital strategists in their teams, when the thinking gets tough. It would be stupid to think politicians are stupid.

The DA – working with all that young talent, backed by the University of the Democractic Alliance (UCT) – has found the pulse of social networks like Twitter.

Nothing Helen Zille says on Twitter is a mistake.

I repeat, nothing Helen Zille says on Twitter is a mistake.

Pleas like “can someone get that woman off Twitter!” or “Helen Zille must apologise!” are misguided and miss a crucial element of her strategy – that Twitter has become the shortcut into mainstream media for her. Helen Zille knows this and has used it on several occasions to her advantage.

Example 1: At a time when the City of Cape Town was being tarnished with another R-word (Racist), Zille deflected all this attention on Cape Town’s racism with two words: “Professional Black” – all anger was redirected to her, instead of Cape Town’s racism. Thus putting Cape Town’s racism to bed, once again.

Example 2: The Eastern Cape Education Refugees. Calling people “education refugees” was Zille’s well-timed way of gatecrashing the Eastern Cape education crisis whilst showcasing better education on offer in the Western Cape. It worked. Get noise on Twitter and the media (which seemingly camps on Twitter) will notice and put this in their papers.
However, news of a Twitter “Refugee” brouhaha reaching the Eastern Cape take on a different form of meaning once they’re outside Twitter. A different audience that is not privy to the pigsty that is Twitter will interpret these events differently.

To the eyes of the poor and those enduring the Eastern Cape education crisis Helen Zille is deadright. “Education is better in the Western Cape – we would like it too, maybe if she led the Eastern Cape we would have her kind of education” is a possible thought avenue.

Three days after her R-word utterance, on Twitter, guess where she was? Port Elizabeth. In blue shirts the DA marched against SADTU there. Needless to say the media saw this as an opportunity to interview her on her use of the R-word. Bear in mind that at this same time there was a massive racial war between coloureds and blacks in Grabouw, Western Cape. Yet again (as in Example 1), she was successfully deflecting attention from her province’s race problem with the simple use of a word: “Refugee.” The media’s writings and questioning remained pinned on her education comments, not so much on Grabouw. I believe the term for this is: Winning! For Zille this further became an opportunity to get onto TV – for free – and campaign via the media. The aim: Advertising that she cares and that she was now there to reassure potential Eastern Cape Education Refugees that she would take care of them. If they vote for her. Remember all it took was a tweet at 7am with @Vuyisaq. It boils down to thousands and thousands of rands worth of FREE campaigning. So well orchestrated was this plan that at the end of her campaigning in Port Elizabeth she took an Eastern Cape Health Refugee along with her and dumped ‘it’ in Khayelitsha hospital. She gloated and gloated about this on Twitter too – that the Eastern Cape Health department had failed this woman, hence she’d taken her to the Western Cape for treatment.

What does this all mean in the minds of the desperate?

It means Helen Zille is indeed the white messiah they’ve all been waiting for – she will give them a better education as well as transport them to better hospitals.

Do not underestimate Helen Zille’s use of Twitter.

It’s a strategy to get votes, backed by a serious team of social network savvy kids. If it means using the Eastern Cape’s education crisis as a ladder to votes then so be it. Heck, it’s an additional opportunity to mock the ANC’s poor governance in that province anyway. Just use Twitter – the medium of mass thinking and mass gullibility – and the media will do the rest for you.

It would be wise not to get distracted by such techniques. And focus on the real problem:

The Eastern Cape has an education crisis on its hands and we need to mobilise parents and communities to engage government themselves. Our people must learn to do things for themselves. They must get angry and do something about that anger. The sooner our people feel and understand that they too can effect change with their voices to government the sooner we can begin to have an active citizenry that will claim its share of this country.

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The Politics of Bread

On the week of 21 February 2012 we embarked on a cyber campaign – in which we got young professionals within our networks to email the following email to the Premier of the Eastern Cape as well as the office of the minister of basic education.

Over a hundred (or more) emails were sent. The gist of the emails was concern over the  poor state of education administration and teaching in the Eastern Cape. It was a direct call to the Premier, Noxolo Kiviet, to take up more action in the fight for a better education for black children in the province, as well as fully implement a Section 100 intervention. The email also made a light plea for a probe into how the department pays R25 (in some schools) for a loaf of brown bread as part of their school feeding scheme. Email concluded by pledging support for the premier and department of basic education.

In sending these emails we didn’t anticipate that all would be attended to and that perhaps a general response for one of two might be forthcoming. However, no response has been forthcoming from the Premier’s office. There were however a few responses from the department of basic education, along these lines:

From: Department of Basic Education
Date: Tue, 28 Feb 2012 10:47:40 +0200
To: Us
Cc: Department of Education senior members

Subject: Your enquiry to the office of the Premier -Eastern Cape

Dear Sir/Madame

Your enquiry to the office of the Premier and MEC for Education in Eastern Cape refers. The National Department of Basic Education received your enquiry from the office of the Minister and wish to further investigate the report on the price of bread at R25 in the school nutrition programme.

Kindly provide us with more information to do in-depth investigations with regards to:

1.       Names of schools affected

2.       The District/s

3.       The name of the service provider/s or supplier of bread

Should you have additional and detailed information at your disposal, please do not hesitate to communicate this to us. Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention.  We will make an effort to investigate and give a response on the matter.  

You may contact … at your earliest convenience.

Kind regards
National School Nutrition Programme (part of Department of Basic Education)

Straight after this response we got another email from another official with the subject line reading: “ALLEGED PRICE OF BREAD IN THE EC PROVINCE” In caps, yes. This next email promised that the NSNP (National School Nutrition Programme) Directorate in the Department of Basic Education is prepared to do a thorough investigation on the alleged conduct where we allude to the fact that there are instances where schools pay as much as R25 for a loaf of bread. However, for this Directorate to properly and speedily investigate they will need at least the name(s) of school(s) where this practice is taking place.

And in the name of politics there had to be some denialism thrown in there, when we were told a meeting was held with the Provincial office of the NSNP and this office did not know anything of the sort (bread pricing). Thereafter we were asked to provide details.

Now. Going back to the initial email sent out by various young professionals voicing their own concerns – it appears the only subject worth responding to was that of bread pricing? Bread politics? Fair enough. We are reasonable people. So we write back thanking the department for its prompt response, provide a link to the Minister of Finance’s budget speech which actually highlighted this bread pricing matter, here. Thereafter we tried to tow the subject back to our main concerns – the rot of education in the department, particularly in the Eastern Cape. We begged that something be done about this and not only reduce this to the politics of bread. Response came in the next day:

From: Department of Basic Education
Date: Wed, 29 Feb 2012 11:19:30 +0200
To: Us
Cc: Department of Basic Education

Subject: RE: ALLEGED PRICE OF BREAD IN THE EC PROVINCE

[Greetings]

Firstly, let me start by saying [the department official], who made the inquiry about the “price of bread” [in first response to us], is not an official from the Office of the Premier in the Province of the Eastern Cape, but is one of the officials responsible for the management / coordination the National School Nutrition Programme in the Department of Basic Education.  His interest on the “price of bread” emanates from his line function duties, and was not an attempt to trivialise the important and real issues you have raised in your e-mail.

Secondly, we were quite aware of Minister Gordhan’s statement in 2009 as well as the reality on the ground at that time. The high pricing of bread at that time was not only a phenomenon which only affected the Province of the Eastern Cape, but was more pronounced in that province. 

The Department of Education did act on these allegations. The current model of decentralising the National School Nutrition Programme to deserving schools, in place of the old procurement model, was an attempt to address gross management and administrative anomalies related to the National School Nutrition Programme.

Thirdly, while we recognise that your e-mail (and those of many of your colleagues) was forwarded to the executive authorities in the Province of theEastern Cape. Therefore it is fair to expect a response from theEastern Cape executive authorities. 

Be that as it may, the Department of Basic Education still has a vested interest in normalising and stabilising the Eastern Cape Education Department.  Hence [department official] made the inquiry on the “price of bread” because we thought the old habits which dogged the National School Nutrition Programme before, were coming back to haunt us.

We applaud members of the communities in theEastern Cape, like yourselves, who have actively responded to the challenge posed by the Secretariat of the ANC Alliance Partners that parents and communities must play an active role in the education of the children of theEastern Cape.

If [department official’s] inquiry was read as trivialising the issues you had raised in your e-mail, we wish to extend our sincerest apologies.

Kind regards 

Chief Director: Planning Oversight & Delivery Unit
Department of Basic Education

So once again we find ourselves discussing bread. No clear resolutions or at the least promises to step up efforts from within the department. Nonetheless we appreciate the time taken to respond. However we are still awaiting a response from the Premier’s office. What is the office of the Premier doing about the education crisis in the Eastern Cape? And in what ways would it like us, concerned citizens, to assist? We do not in the least bit see ourselves as some form of opposition coalition, but rather we are here to assist government, particulary the department of education. This is not a war. We await a response and will be sending out reminder emails to the Premier’s office…

If you would like to take part in the next round of this cyber campaign, send an email to imfundo.easterncape@gmail.com