It began with severe weather warnings, as our provincial disaster management centre took every precaution to prepare for the expected floods. They reported their plans to cabinet, after which we took the unprecedented step of closing schools, and waited for the deluge. Instead, we got an inferno.
A forensic scientist is now investigating how it came to pass that, in a howling 75 km gale, with gusts up to 150 kms per hour, fires started on different sides of a small town, surrounded by indigenous forests and huge forestry plantations, where the undergrowth was unusually dry because of the drought. I have learnt to await the result of such investigations before making further comment.
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The tsunami of fire descended on Knysna from all sides, destroying cell phone masts and electricity supply, cutting off the 77,000 townsfolk from outside help as many sought refuge near the water’s edge, an escape route of last resort.
We knew this disaster was beyond what we could manage, so we called for assistance from the South African National Defence Force. I followed the escalating crisis and the attempted interventions for most of Wednesday night. Next morning, I got on a plane to be on the ground where it mattered. The smouldering ruins of parts of the picturesque coastal town reminded me of photos I have seen of Dresden after the fire-bombing that ended World War Two in Europe.
As I arrived, the fire was raging on towards Plettenberg Bay. And as I write, new fires are closing in on Sedgefield, Buffels Baai, and parts of George, while the fire-fighting helicopters are grounded because of the wind speed.
Worst of all have been the human casualties: a family died, trapped in their home with no escape route; a three-year-old child burnt to a cinder, was discovered in the ruins of another house. A voluntary fire-fighter who succumbed to 70% burns; another critical in hospital. As I write the fire is not yet fully under control.
Apart from this extreme tragedy, the week brought further crises, such as the gang war in Lavender Hill and conflicts between communities in Gugulethu over access to land.
I was also suspended from the DA. And by the end of the week, my disciplinary hearing was underway.
Fortunately, there were also some pleasant jobs like meeting seniors in Mitchells Plain and attending the inauguration of a church apostle in Khayelitsha.
And, in between was the routine time-consuming stuff, such as responding to the Sunday Times’ weekly efforts to find a scandal somewhere — anywhere — in the Western Cape government.
Two weeks ago, the “scandal” was that a long-standing friend of Human Settlements Minister Bonginkosi Madikizela had bought him an expensive birthday cake. The nub of “cake-gate” was that this friend is also a partner in a construction company that does business with the Western Cape government. What the Sunday Times did not mention, though, was that Bonginkosi and the contractor have been friends since the 1990s, long before she was a contractor or he was a Minister, when they were ANC activists in Khayelitsha. His friend later joined a construction company that started doing business with the province before the DA took office in the Western Cape and well before Bonginkosi became the Minister of Human Settlements. There was clearly no scandal, but this did not stop the Sunday Times from pretending it was; nor did it prevent the Cape Times from running a headline on the Minister’s birthday “sleaze”.
This week the Sunday Times was busy trying to manufacture a scandal about a maths teacher in Khayelitsha who prepared a matric preparation programme in 2014, and volunteered to give free workshops and resources (including books of past exam papers and DVDs with videotaped explanations of each answer) to disadvantaged students in the run-up to the matric exams that year.
The extremely positive feedback from the initiative prompted the teacher to repeat the same workshop support and free materials for pupils who wrote supplementary examinations at the beginning of 2015.
So where is the scandal?
It lies in the fact that the teacher enabled the students to use 150 tablet devices borrowed from the Western Cape Education Department for the week of the workshops. He loaded the app to access the videos onto the tablets at no cost, and returned them to the department in pristine condition, after making a written commitment to ensure their safe return.
You still don’t get the scandal? The 150 tablets the pupils used were part of a much bigger consignment of 480 devices ordered for the “Year Beyond (YeBo) Programme”, that places graduate interns in disadvantaged schools to help with academic support after school hours (using e-learning among other methods). The devices were purchased through the Department of Education, because they were going to become the property of schools where the YeBo interns were working. Because the Education Department did not have sufficient funds to purchase 480 devices, the YeBo Programme approached the Director General of the Province around the middle of 2014, who agreed to transfer R2-million to the Education budget for the procurement of the tablets that were required from the first term of 2015.
When the maths teacher offered the matric preparation workshops, and an expert in the Department had evaluated the quality of the material, the purchase of 150 out of the 480 tablets was expedited to make sure they arrived in time for the workshops. I supported speeding up the process, just as I support the expediting of every procurement process (which tends to stretch out interminably) as long as no rules are broken. If we work efficiently and smartly, we can reduce the procurement timeline, often by many weeks, while continuing to play “by the book”. Indeed, I believe streamlining these processes is crucial to cutting red tape and expediting delivery.
In any event, it would have been useless if the technology the students needed for the workshops had only been available after the matric exam — something like delivering the Cape Town stadium after the World Cup.
Are you still puzzled about where the scandal lies?
The maths teacher, who was teaching in Khayelitsha at the time — at a departmental “focus school” specialising in maths, science and technology — happens to be my son.
Which opened the door for the Sunday Times to give this story their own spin. The scandal, apparently, lies in the fact that I helped ensure that the tablets were procured on time.
As everyone in the provincial government knows, I follow up literally scores of projects, every day, using Gant charts and “traffic lights” and an app called Bizprojects to ensure that things happen on time and that deadlines are met. That is one of the reasons that things actually happen in the Western Cape.
And when people approach me with an innovative idea, on any significant issue we are facing (from water purification to green, new building methods, or education), I refer them to the relevant provincial Minister to consult with departmental experts and determine appropriate follow-up, if any. The fact that such an approach comes from my son should make absolutely no difference to the way he is treated. He should experience no advantage or disadvantage because of who he is, and everyone in the government knows this.
He was not making a cent out of the project. Indeed, he gave countless hours of his time to record the material and make it available at no cost, including books and DVDs, so that the students could study at home, without the tablets. He raised the necessary money from donors, and convened the workshops with the permission of the relevant schools (outside of school hours). The matric students used the tablets borrowed from the Education Department, returned them, and went home with free exam books and DVDs, that enabled home access without the tablets. The only people who benefited were the students.
And of course, I gave a written instruction, that the same offer to borrow the tablets, was open to every volunteer teacher or small enterprise who wished to offer free education services of appropriate quality to benefit students.
In fact, at the end of 2014, the Education Department was experimenting with a number of other interventions as well, such as Greenshoots, Click Reading Eggs, Funza, and Olico.
Encouraged by the very enthusiastic response to the matric preparation initiative, Paul (my son) and his friend Chris Mills (who also taught Maths in Khayelitsha) followed through on their plan to establish a “start-up” small enterprise using technology to make excellent teaching easily accessible for Physical Sciences, Natural Sciences and Accounting as well. They registered a start-up called “Paper Video” early in 2015. Paul resigned his job, to concentrate full-time on developing on-line teaching resources, but continued teaching voluntarily at his school in Khayelitsha for another term.
The Actuarial Society of South Africa was so impressed with the “app” and teaching videos, that they helped to raise the money required for more than 10,000 learners to get access to the resources, free of charge. The results, where the materials have been properly used, have been excellent.
The videos are also available online, and 20% of the Grade 10, 11 and 12 resources are free. Judging from the Sunday Times’ line of questioning, they seem to think it is scandalous that the remainder can be purchased. This reflects a mentality still prevalent in South Africa, where trying to establish a viable small business is still somehow considered inherently shameful, while getting donations from big corporates to start an NGO is inherently noble, irrespective of the quality or sustainability of the enterprise. And of course, no-one raises a peep when government pays good money to these NGOs (some of which are excellent, others hopeless) to work in our schools without going through any competitive process, and often irrespective of the quality of the intervention.
In countries that have succeeded in growing their economies and beating unemployment, things work the other way around. One of the lessons I learnt in Singapore (that I wrote about last week) was the extent to which the government facilitates promising start-ups to become viable. Singapore does this because business development grows the economy and creates jobs. Singaporeans tend to regard this as preferable to pouring increasing amounts of money down the bottomless pit of social grants until the shrinking economy and tax base can no longer sustain it.
Until we make a similar mind-set shift, South Africa will not make the progress we need to get our people out of poverty. There is no scandal here, Sunday Times. Only a story of dedication, commitment and innovation, which is what drives economic growth, and is what we need more than anything else in South Africa.
By Helen Zille