Interview: Helen Zille

The MEC for education in the Western Cape is determined to raise the quality of township schools. She talks about her plans.

'In the quality schools teachers arrive on time and don't leave early. They mark books, prepare lessons and involve parents. There is no magic formula.'

How did you first get interested in politics?
I grew up in a politicised household. My mother and father were German and they each had a Jewish parent. My father left Hitler’s Germany for South Africa in 1934. My mother and her parents left in 1939. Both my parents were early members and supporters of the Progressive Party.

My first memory of politics impacting on my consciousness was when the National Party government ended the school feeding scheme for black children during the 1950s. I can still see my mother’s anger. She joined the Black Sash early on and was very active in its advice office, which meant that she was more in touch with the realities of black people’s lives under apartheid than the average white person. Over supper in the evening she would recount the things she had heard about during the day. It was an unusual background and I often felt a cultural clash between my school and home environments.

When I went to Wits I had expected to join the National Union of South African Students, but the first meeting I went to completely turned me off. The atmosphere was dogmatic and dominated by Marxist rhetoric. I could see that it wasn’t done to hold any other view, so I joined RAG, the student charity fund-raising organisation, and the academic freedom committee instead. Later, during the 1980s, I became politically active again through the Black Sash and the End Conscription Campaign. Throughout this time, Marxist discourse was becoming hegemonic in the progressive movement, but I could never go along with it. I found it difficult to articulate exactly why, so in 1982 I took a year off and went to UCT to study Southern African economic history and clarify my thoughts.

What did you discover during that year?
That the Marxist emperor had no clothes. The Marxist analysis, applied to South Africa, was trying to force our history into a paradigm developed in a completely different context. It was interesting to note that every time events in our history offered people a choice between race or class solidarity, race seemed to win. Marxists were ingenious at explaining this away, but it was all rather tortuous. Marxists have to squeeze facts into their framework, to prove the historical inevitability of the working class revolution and the demise of capitalism. Today this kind of analysis is entirely obsolete, but at the time it was taken as self-evident by many activists. This kind of ideology does not respect alternative views or allow an open society. Liberals make space for people with opposing views. I believe in the falsification principle — one must always look for reasons why one may be wrong rather than why one is right.

So you are a follower of Karl Popper?

You worked as a reporter on the Rand Daily Mail for eight years in the paper’s heyday. What stories stand out from that time?
I joined the paper in 1974 as a cadet reporter. Allister Sparks was editor — I respected him a great deal. The biggest story that I worked on was exposing the cause of Steve Biko’s death, which according to official statements, was supposed to have been the result of a hunger strike. I was young and naïve when Allister sent me to investigate the story. I interviewed the security police who of course wouldn’t tell me anything. I also spoke to the three doctors in Port Elizabeth who had examined Biko’s body and claimed to have found nothing abnormal. There was crucial medical evidence, though, that indicated beyond reasonable doubt that Steve Biko had died from brain damage. When we published the story it caused an outcry and the government took the paper to the press council. Our case was defended by Sydney Kentridge, but because I couldn’t reveal my sources, Judge Galgut found against us. Of course, when the full story came out, what I had written was seen to be mild.
I did more investigative work in the 1990s when I was working for the Cape Town Peace Committee trying to expose the third force in the Western Cape. This was the only time in my history of political involvement when I have felt in danger. There was no doubt in my view that agents within the police were using any fault lines in the black community to try to turn people against the ANC and foment violence. I went to the Goldstone Commission with a dossier but my evidence was found to be inconclusive.

How did your involvement in education begin?
It began with my two children, who were born in 1984 and 1989. I wanted my sons to go to public schools so that they would experience a mix of cultures and backgrounds. I am very keen to keep the middle class in public education as a first choice. My boys went to Grove Primary and I spent a lot of time getting involved in the school. I was asked to help formulate a strategic development plan and was co-opted on to the governing body. Then I became chair of the governing body.

In 1996 Grove Primary became the focus of a successful legal challenge in the Cape Town High Court over the right of school governors to recommend teachers for appointment. What happened exactly?
The context was the education department’s policy to rightsize the number of teachers and set national norms for pupil-teacher ratios. The goal was to put right the huge differentials in the distribution of teachers — one of the main legacies of the old racially divided system. This meant that well-staffed schools would lose teachers and under-staffed schools would gain teachers. I supported this objective, as well as the original strategy to achieve it, which would have enabled well-staffed schools to determine which posts to lose on the basis of educational criteria. The agreement also provided for the creation of new posts at under-staffed schools. This process would have been efficient and educationally effective — and would have resulted in the redistribution of resources to poorer schools. But the trade unions did not like this arrangement at all because it did not guarantee job security, and so the unions put the government under enormous pressure to change it. The pressure was particularly strong in the Western Cape because teachers are a huge constituency here and local elections were coming up that the ANC was desperate to win.

The unions put forward a different formula based on voluntary severance packages (VSPs) and redeployment. Then President Mandela announced that while he was president not a single teacher would be retrenched. As a result , the government had to reverse the original arrangement that had taken 18 months to negotiate. A lucrative voluntary severance package was produced to entice teachers to leave the profession, while those who did not leave were guaranteed posts through the introduction of a redeployment list which gave the government the power to dictate to governing bodies whom to appoint in each vacancy.

Grove was completely in favour of redistribution, but not by the VSP/redeployment measures which made educational criteria subservient to industrial relations criteria. It was entirely predictable that the best and most experienced teachers who qualified for the largest packages would be enticed to leave the profession and that some of the weakest or least experienced would then be redeployed to the vacancies created. When I heard Brian O’Connell, the head of education in the Western Cape, first explaining the new policy on television I knew it was illegal. I went straight to my computer and wrote him a letter telling him that if the government implemented the new policy, I would oppose it in the courts.

How did the government and unions respond when Grove won its case?
One consequence of opposing ANC policy is that you get called a racist. I’m used to that now and I simply ignore it. But it makes some people nervous of expressing opposition to the ANC. There were many delicious ironies in the situation around the court case, though. Several members of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) send their children to Grove. After we won our court case, Sadtu resolved to hold a protest march to the school during school hours. Various Sadtu members then contacted me privately to ask whether it would be safe to send their children to school because Sadtu would be holding a protest march! The Sadtu parents seemed the most nervous. Most other parents sent their children to school on the day of the march and we decided to declare it “democracy day” with discussions on the right to peaceful protest and free speech. Sadtu gave us a practical demonstration in the street outside.

Among the toyi-toying protestors I saw various principals and teachers whose own children were sitting inside Grove being taught by teachers who would never disrupt their pupils’ education by going on strike. What has really intrigued me, throughout this case, is this disjuncture between public and private morality, which I sometimes think is a hallmark of the ANC.

This all happened when Sibusiso Bengu was minister. Kader Asmal seems to be taking a harder line with Sadtu. In his speech in Durban in September he told them their brand of unionism was not worth defending.
Well, he’s had tough words for them. Let’s see if he can translate tough words into some serious action. He sounds good, but the jury is still out.

The day after this speech you threatened to close down Bonga Primary School in Guguletu if it did not stick to a rescue plan. The minister attacked you saying such action would be illegal and unconstitutional. What has happened at that school?
The action would be entirely legal and constitutional. Ironically, it seems as if the minister has now adopted my approach, if recent media reports are anything to go by.
The dispute at Bonga shows once again how industrial relations interests overshadow educational considerations in our schools. In terms of South Africa’s labour laws, applicants who are not appointed to posts can declare a dispute if they are not satisfied with the outcome. We have had about a thousand disputes in the past 18 months, approximately 60 per cent of which have been entirely frivolous. The amount of time and money these disputes absorb is enormously wasteful. Sometimes such a dispute can bring an entire school to a standstill. This is what happened at Bonga Primary. The outcome of mediation and arbitration was ignored and the dispute intensified over two years, until there wasn’t a single adult in that school who hadn’t taken sides, making it completely dysfunctional. I made several unannounced visits to the school and witnessed fights between teachers and members of the governing body who shouted appalling abuse at each other, while children were left unattended in classrooms. The acting principal we appointed was driven out by physical force.

It is important for me to say in this context that the teachers’ unions have acted appropriately in upholding the rule of law in the Bonga case. When the teacher who failed to get the promotion refused to abide by the outcome of arbitration, the teachers’ unions supported my tough action, and I think they acted with integrity. Every day in education shows me how crippling the effect of our labour legislation is. When Professor Asmal does something about this, I’ll say he is really putting his money where his mouth is.

Do you often turn up at schools unannounced?
I make more visits to schools by invitation than I do unannounced. I normally only go unannounced when I have received a serious complaint from a parent or staff member that seems to have substance. In such cases I don’t want to arrive on a public relations visit.

I believe one of your visits was quite dramatic.
Recently my secretary made an arrangement for me to go and see a school in Guguletu at eight o’clock in the morning. I am very worried about the Guguletu schools because they used to be reasonably good and have been deteriorating. I am determined to find out why. I arrived at eight (when classes were scheduled to start) and watched for at least ten minutes as students strolled in. Eventually I walked into the staffroom and sat down. No one took any notice of me, which gave me the opportunity to observe things unfolding. The principal was talking to the staff on a range of subjects, including the encroachment of various extraneous activities into teaching time. As I had an appointment with him I assumed he knew who I was and was just finishing his speech to the staff. When he had finished, I got up and introduced myself. The shocked silence made it clear that only then had it dawned on them who I was.

I told the staff all the reasons why I disagreed with what the principal had just said about other activities displacing teaching and learning. He was bristling with anger and told me that I should have made an official appointment to talk to him privately, and should have sent the circuit manager if I wanted direct observation of events at the school. I told him that I had indeed made an appointment to see him. I also said that, as I am directly accountable to the public for the functioning of schools, I don’t have to go through the bureaucracy to observe what is happening in the schools for which I am responsible. The whole staff was initially hostile to me. I then asked to be taken round the school where I saw indescribably filthy conditions, with litter of all kinds lying all over the place. But it was not all negative — I was encouraged by some good teaching in science, English and home economics.

After my tour I was in the playground when a teacher dashed out and said gangsters had just entered the school and pointed a gun at him. They were spotted walking round the perimeter and I raced across the fields after them. I did this instinctively because I get so angry about the disruption of our schools by vandals. I managed to get a look at them and phoned the police from my cellphone with a description. Then I jumped into my car with two of the teachers and my wide-eyed driver roared off round the streets of Guguletu to try to cut them off. Unfortunately they managed to give us the slip. When the police turned up, what struck me was that several of the children knew exactly who the gangsters were, but they were too scared to identify them, so the only description the police got was from me.

I must tell you that the attitude of the staff, which had been one of anger initially, changed quite fundamentally after this incident. I think what changed the dynamic was that I had experienced some of their daily reality, and the conditions under which they work. And that was a point I was quite happy to take — that I had not taken these conditions sufficiently into account. Later that day the headmaster phoned me to say the police had caught one of the suspects. Now we are working with the circuit manager to improve things there.

Not long ago I went to a school in Manenberg where there were bullet holes in the walls. When I asked the Grade 1 pupils what they most wanted at school they replied that they wanted to feel safe. We have drawn up an action plan to help those schools most at risk from vandalism and violence.

You have mentioned your desire to bring back a culture of dedicated teaching and learning time. This was one of the six priorities you set out in your opening speech to the provincial legislature on September 15. Can you elaborate?
Education takes the most extraordinary amount of discipline, effort and hard work. Reward is always related to this. Time management, beginning with arriving on time for lessons, is essential, but it is a very hard thing to learn. I am determined that this should change. We have the role model of the dedicated African teacher — people such as Z.K. Matthews and T.K. Kambule. This is why some teachers’ unions are vulnerable when the minister tells them that their behaviour is destroying this legacy. But you cannot generalise. I think the basis of racism is generalisation — if you say this group of teachers is like that, it’s a caricature. When I speak to Sadtu teachers they insist that they are absolutely committed to quality education. In my recent discussions, I have seen there is a great deal in common that we can build on.

But the unions were angry when you publicly criticised teachers who took the day off to sing in the Sadtu choir for a Women’s Day ceremony in August instead of teaching their classes.
Yes. I was at the function and so was Kader Asmal. I said to him, “You want to know why some of the schools are performing so badly? Well, there are your teachers, singing in the middle of a school morning.” The press wanted a comment from me and I gave it to them. And when I was investigating how it was that so many teachers from so many different schools had managed to be off for the day I discovered a convention that if they check into school by 10.30 in the morning and then check out for the rest of the day they won’t be penalised. It’s an urban legend but teachers have got used to it. It’s a matter of changing the culture and parents are my best allies in this — they know that education is the only passport to a better life. You don’t have to look for a magic formula. In the quality schools teachers arrive on time and don’t leave early, they mark books, prepare their lessons and involve parents in the school. And those schools are over-enrolled. There’s a huge market for quality out there. The biggest irony is that most Sadtu teachers do not send their children to schools where the staff is predominantly Sadtu.

Tell me about some of the other priorities you have set.
The challenge of transformation is to improve quality. Time management is essential but we also have to measure our performance against benchmarks. For instance we need to know how many days are spent teaching and how well learners are doing. I have secured the assistance of partners, including the Joint Education Trust and UCT to devise tests for us to measure literacy and numeracy of a random stratified sample of children at the end of Grade 3. It’s a huge undertaking.

Then I want to spread best practice — the best curriculum, best teaching methods, best information resources — from the most successful schools. We have chosen a few areas of the curriculum to concentrate on: first language teaching, maths, science and information and communications technology, and life skills.

In your speech you also said that all over the world devolved school management has been shown to work best. How can you develop it here?
We are starting a five-year plan to build the capacity of school governors. We have to show that the job of a governor is not just about power or patronage or being able to assert control, it’s about service to the community and due process. People from entrenched democracies take the concept of due process for granted, but we can’t do that. I hope our schools will become the bedrock for the development and understanding of just law and due process.