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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

16 Aug 2001: Zille, Helen

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POM     I want to ask you a couple of questions because I know your time is very limited. One thing is we have a child, not our child, but a child of our domestic and she goes to a good public school in Emmerentia, she's eight years of age and I'm astonished at what she does at school.

HZ     Public schools are very good.

POM     But this is supposed to be one of the higher of the school. They spend a lot of time drawing, there's no math at home, there's no multiplication.

HZ     What grade is she in?

POM     She is in Grade 2.

HZ     When did she turn eight?

POM     Last April. And the books they get are still children's books.

HZ     Well in the Western Cape, I mean I have that problem.

POM     Are they standardised? Is there a standardised curriculum, national curriculum?

HZ     You see this is the result of Curriculum 2005. We've recently had the release of the new curriculum statements which I hope will resolve that problem. The Curriculum 2005 has in many cases created that problem or exacerbated it and this is because of the following circumstances. Curriculum 2005 is a particularly 'progressive' form of outcomes based education which declares a very, very broad educational outcome but leaves it to the educator to determine how to reach that outcome and nowhere is reading and writing and counting specified as a definite outcome. It's communication skills in a very generic sense and that sort of thing. So what you had amongst teachers who have really been thrown in the deep end and have their whole world of methodology turned upside down is that they've spent a lot of time trying to understand new terminology, trying to understand new concepts and those who have mastered it and understood the need to take a broad generic outcome and work out a teaching plan, a learner support plan, learner support materials and everything to underscore it and have been able to do that and have had the capacity to do that, have really improved education enormously. Those who just battle to come to terms with the terminology, have not understood what to do, have taken away from the training sessions only perhaps the understanding that you have to do group work, that the children have to enjoy themselves and have fun, that is the problem that you end up with people having meaningless discussions all the time about what they did yesterday or what they did over the weekend, colouring in endlessly, drawing endlessly and never getting the basics right.

POM     This child, for example, had spent half a day on yawning, how you yawn, why you yawn and when you yawn and how to practice yawning.

HZ     You see one of my big dilemmas in the Western Cape is that the curriculum is a national framework that has to be looked at and I have adjusted Curriculum 2005 as much as I can. Everywhere I have been to I have said that the most important thing in the first three years of school are reading, writing, counting to the right level of competency.

POM     The three Rs, "reading, 'riting, 'rithmatic".

HZ     Absolutely, and life skills, and I have pumped that through the system again and again. The trouble is that there is an ideological gulf to get over because people have bought into the ideology of Curriculum 2005 and not seen the pedagogic crisis that has resulted from it. But the good thing about the review process is that it has now released new learning statements which describe for the very first time educational outcomes at the end of each year which have to be attained and which can be measured and for which people can be held accountable. I'm hoping the situation of your eight year old will change. Certainly there haven't been these kinds of problems in our good public schools but the problems have even been worse in our new public schools.

POM     Now in terms of public schools like, say, in Cape Town and environs and public schools in rural areas or in townships or places like the Cape Flats or whatever, would you still have a situation where what were before all black schools are still really all black schools, where you have black teachers, perhaps an occasional little mixture, but primarily black schools, black teachers, whereas as you move closer to the metropolitan area you would have more mixed schools with mixed teaching styles and there would be a differentiation of the quality of education, in both this is still a big problem, not just here but nationally also?

HZ     That is the general picture here, no question about it. Historically black schools are still historically black. Some have a few teachers, I don't like to use the word 'race', but of different races on their staff component but the schools are still predominantly black and then the former white schools have become non-racial and the former coloured schools are becoming non-racial. The teaching staff composition is taking longer to change because we've been downsizing the system very dramatically and so it's difficult to change the profile of your staff when you have to lose a lot of staff and you're not employing staff. It's extremely difficult to do that and also I presume there has been some resistance but the change in composition of teaching staff in general is coming along quite nicely.

POM     You've reduced the number of - ?

HZ     By 8000 in the last six years. We've reduced the number of teachers in the Western Cape by 8000 in the last six years.

POM     So the ratio of children to teachers has gone up.

HZ     Gone up dramatically. It's in terms of the national equity plan. We had to have the similar input into education across the country and we fund in terms of a pupil/teacher ratio and the Western Cape's funding came down dramatically, dramatically, and we had to lose 8000 teaching posts.

POM     Wow! It seems to contradictory in terms of on the one hand you hear all this emphasis that you have to grow through the development of human capital and on the other hand kind of cutting the ground from under it at the very bottom.

HZ     Well it depends on how you spend your money in education. We're not spending too little as a country. As a country we're spending the right amount on education, it's very high for the development as a proportion of the gross domestic product. So we're not spending too little on education, the trouble is that the system is seriously inefficient and we're getting very small returns on the investment. That's what the problem is.

POM     How about higher education? I've been told that you have this peculiar contradiction that historically black universities are doing poorer and poorer and then the historically English speaking universities are grumbling, staggering a little bit, but that historically Afrikaans universities are thriving.

HZ     I'm not in the higher education sector any more but let me say this, that the dictum remains true that pouring money into inefficient systems does nothing to improve performance. Huge amounts of money have been put through international aid and other things into historically disadvantaged institutions and across the board I think that most of them are in crisis. There are some exceptions but most of them are in crisis.

POM     Incompetent?

HZ     In crisis, most of them are in crisis. My perception is that institutions like the University of Cape Town are still very, very strong and doing very well. Wits may have been through a much rougher time but again it's the challenge of running one highly competent system and accommodating a very disadvantaged student base within it and having the imperatives of employment equity. The Afrikaans universities have not in the main faced such a challenge of transformation as the English speaking campuses have but there are also exceptions to that. I understand that the University of the Orange Free State and some others have really made a very dramatic shift in their student base but they did it at a later stage where they were not so vulnerable to disruptions and protests and other problems like that. So I don't think that the good historically English speaking universities, and I think I know the University of Cape Town, I don't think that that is under threat. The critical thing is to keep hold on to your middle class students. You have to hold on to your middle class students. The public school system has to hold on to its middle class students. The more middle class students a system has the more it can accommodate, cross-subsidise, support and lift the disadvantaged ones. If you lose your middle class students the entire system falls down.

POM     Is there a tendency, and this happened particularly in Boston when they had forced integration of schools in the seventies, desegregation, that white parents simply took their children out of schools and sent them to private schools, that the whole boom in the private school sector

HZ     I think that we've seen that in SA to some extent but it's been a very limited extent in the Western Cape. The private school sector has not had that lift-off in the Western Cape that it has had in other parts of SA and there is still middle class confidence in the public school system and I'm  doing my best to retain that. My understanding of transformation is to build the quality of schools and make that quality more widely accessible, much more widely accessible, but a key component to maintaining that quality is keeping your middle class in public education. They contribute enormously financially and in kind and with expertise and with the quality of their children's performance. It lifts the whole system and it's critical to keep.

POM     Are you not in a double bind of a kind when it comes to, say, historically black disadvantaged schools in townships or whatever that as soon as the parents reach a middle class status they can afford to either transport them to a racially mixed school that is more broadly based, or to a school that is simply better outside of the school in the township?

HZ     But why should that be a problem?

POM     The school in the township is losing whatever emergent middle class support it would have.

HZ     But you see they're all public schools and the fact of the matter is I really believe that parents must make their choices and that what we have to do is improve the quality of education at the majority of our public schools. Now schools are crucially dependent on student numbers and they need student numbers since that is one of the major pull factors, one of the major factors that ensures that they try and improve their quality to attract learners. I'm all in favour of people voting with their feet to where they think they can get a good education. I have to ensure that they can get a good education in the public system and I'm quite happy that our good public schools become completely non-racial institutions because we need non-racial institutions. What I'm concerned about is that they might cease to be non-racial if there is middle class flight from them and I'm hoping that there won't be. So far the black middle class, the coloured middle class, the white middle class have by and large, not entirely but by and large stuck with the public school system. Now we've got to focus with push and pull factors on the weak schools to get them to improve their performance. I could never expect any form of block to have an alternative to stay in schools where the quality is extremely low.

POM     But in those public schools in townships that are disadvantaged now in one sense as, say, the parents of the pupils in those schools move into the middle class, their tendency will be to take their children from that school and to move them to a better quality school whereas the overall quality of the school will tend to go down.

HZ     Unless the quality of the school improves in terms of its delivery and in terms of what it's offering and in terms of its management.

POM     That's a huge

HZ     That's where our job is, that's what we have to get. But you see the alternative is to block people's choice and we can't possibly do that. I can't say to people - you may not send your child to a different school.

POM     The example in my head in fact referred to housing that happened in the US as an emerging black middle class came, they moved out of historically black areas and

HZ     It happens here too.

POM     - so what you were left with were the dregs and the poor and the totally disadvantaged so that black areas in cities became completely run down.

HZ     It is a problem when you have the middle class leaving and no role models left, but what is your alternative? You can't say to people that you may not move to improve your quality of life, you have to stay in an environment that you feel uncomfortable raising your children in. Then you're destroying the link between effort and reward, you are destroying incentive in your society and incentive is the base of progress in a modern economy. So the alternative is to provide other incentives and other pressures to improve the quality of performance in weak schools but not to do it by blocking the choices of the middle class.

POM     Now how does the fee structure work in the public schools? In different schools, at least in Gauteng, in our area which covers two or three school districts, there appear to be different fee structures.

HZ     It works like this: every year the governing body has to set up a budget for the school and has to have a meeting of the parents at which they lay the budget in front of the parents and discuss all the items in the budget and then they have to decide on the basis of that budget what fees they are going to charge to parents and then they have to put that to the vote. If the fee structure is passed by the parents of the school then the fee structure is carried. The department obviously makes a contribution but we make a contribution in line with the socio-economic standing of the school so our poorest schools get seven times more than our least poor public schools.

POM     Your poor schools get seven times - ?

HZ     Seven times more from the department than our least poor public schools.

POM     The worst get seven times more in terms of their allocation funding and that would be on a per pupil basis?

HZ     Per pupil basis. It doesn't include the salaries of teachers but it includes everything else. We fund teachers on a pupil/teacher ratio equitably across the system but for all other forms of current expenditure, maintenance and learner support material and that sort of thing we fund our poorest schools seven times more than our least poor schools.

POM     Let's say if I lived in a suburb here and there's a public school down the road and let's say the fee or whatever is we pay what? We pay R5000 a year for the child that's going to Emmerentia, let's say it was R4000, but you have the children of domestic servants who want to go to that school and they can't afford the R4000, is there some kind of sliding scale structure?

HZ     There is, there is a sliding scale structure. There's a law and a set of regulations on fee exemption. No parent can be turned away because they can't pay the fees so that's not allowed to be a question of funds, whether people can afford the fees. Then when they are in the school the determining criterion is this: if you earn less than thirty times the annual school fee you are partially exempt, if you earn less than ten times the annual school fee you are totally exempt with a sliding scale in between.

POM     Now is that the national standard?

HZ     Yes.

POM     So if you had to look at the situation since, say, the mid nineties, over the last six years in terms of getting you over this huge backlog of problems that were left, that the post-apartheid government inherited, which ones do you think they have tackled efficiently and effectively and which ones are still largely unaddressed and continue to drag the system as a whole down?

HZ     There's only one that's been addressed efficiently and effectively and that is the matric exam. That is run efficiently and effectively across the system as a whole. Absolutely nothing else has been addressed efficiently and effectively and in fact the gross inefficiency of the system is the biggest barrier to overcoming the legacy of apartheid.

POM     And the inefficiency is what would you call, enumerate in the name inefficiency?

HZ     Well it means the return on the investment. The poor learning outcomes for the amount of money that gets poured into education.

POM     And the high drop-out rates, children not finishing school?

HZ     Just the poor learner outcomes across the board, the fact that literacy and numeracy rates are dropping at the end of Grade 3 although far more resources are pumped into it. Curriculum transformation has up to now been a disaster. If we can improve it from now remains to be seen and new curriculum statements are a very significant improvement. The restructuring of the system, the inefficiencies pertaining to that, the collapse of the whole district system across the country, it's been extremely serious and we've got a very, very serious crisis of efficiency and that more than anything else is standing in the way of transforming this country from the legacy of the apartheid years.

POM     Just two more questions. One is related to that - I've already forgotten. The other one was just politics. I remember in the early interviews I did with you pre-1994 how passionate you were about changes and pro majority government -

HZ     I still am.

POM     - across the board, everything, and yet you find yourself kind of aligned with a party that is continually labelled as racist and backward looking. Do you find that hurtful in some way that you have spent so much of your life fighting for equality and yet the fingers of accusal are pointed at you that you simply don't understand what equality is, that you are still somehow, because of the colour of your skin, part of the 'enemy', those who are do you know what I mean?

HZ     You know I don't experience that. I know what people say and I know the rhetoric but I'm in black communities all the time, my constituency is a black constituency, my views haven't changed and I think history will judge. At every point that I've had to take a decision in my long political life, since the early 1960s, I've always said to myself, when I look back on this in ten years time, what will have been the right choice to have made? And I fought apartheid for the entire history of that evil system and I am a liberal democrat, I make no apologies for that, and always have been. In 1994 when the big choice came and then later there have been subsequent choices, I decided that what would be the worst thing for democracy was one party having an overwhelming stranglehold on all the levers of power in society. And I said to myself then that in ten years time the most important thing to have done for this country will have been to build a multiparty democracy and a strong and viable opposition. The transitions to democracies in Africa have usually been characterised by the consolidation of power of a single all-powerful party, the connections that you have to that party determining your chance in life, the withering away of the opposition with all the resultant morbidity that we've seen. I don't want this country to go the same way. It's entirely viable to be in opposition. If people want to play the race card about it that's up to them, it's water off my back.

POM     Do you think the government plays the race card?

HZ     All the time, all the time, but it's water off my back and I don't even worry about it.

POM     Do you think there's also this general tendency towards the centralisation of power  -

HZ     Oh yes of course.

POM     - within the presidency, the weakening of the legislature, the weakening of the Public Accounts Committees?

HZ     Yes I think there's enormous centralisation of power and that's why I think within ten years time my decision in 1994 will seem to be the right one. It's already the right one and it's critically important for us to build up rival strong, non-racial parties in Africa that can turn us into a viable democracy.

POM     Thanks.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.