Newsmaker – Panyaza Lesufi steps out of Motshekga’s shadow

2014-06-29 15:00

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Panyaza Lesufi may be the only man alive who can tell Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga that her pantihose look “ugly”.

Through the worst of scandals, like Limpopo’s textbook crisis, Lesufi was always the public face of the embattled minister, putting up spirited defences in tough interviews.

Now he’s the man in charge of the Gauteng education department and, with several ambitious proposals to change schools in the province, Lesufi could be just as controversial as his mentor. He was appointed Gauteng’s education MEC a month ago – and with his new position comes the painful severing of a bond forged with Motshekga 16 years ago in Tembisa.

Lesufi will now hope to make his own mark with proposals that include merging township schools with suburban ones, breaking the damaging control teacher unions have had on school appointments, “crushing” gangsterism in schools and introducing new “paperless” classrooms.

He and Motshekga met at an ANC meeting where she was representing the women’s league and he was a militant youth leader. “If you think Julius Malema is radical, you should have seen me then,” he says. “She came to me after the meeting and said: ‘My child, can I nurture you?’”

It was the start of a strong relationship. He was first put to work on Motshekga’s watch when her husband, Mathole Motshekga, was unexpectedly made premier in 1997 following Tokyo Sexwale’s resignation. The new premier had no staff and asked the young Lesufi to manage his diary, arrange meetings and write his speeches.

When Angie Motshekga was appointed Gauteng’s social development MEC in 1999, she turned to Lesufi, prising him away from the office of the controversial then mayor of Ekurhuleni Bavumile Vilakazi.

“It has been many years of a parent taking care of me. So when I was announced MEC and had to tell her, she said she felt like a mother who is about to see her daughter married. That means a lot to me.”

He will miss his back room role, which allowed him to be influential in different ways. “In that role, even when I felt the minister was clumsily dressed and no one else would face her, I would tell her: ‘Take off those pantihose. They look ugly on you.’”

Blunt, perhaps, and Lesufi (44) is already ruffling feathers with his shift from bureaucrat to full-time politician.

He plans to merge Sandton High and Alexandra High, among others.

“I see no reason they cannot be one school. They are merely divided by a bridge. I know this will not make me popular, but I don’t want to preside over a tweaked apartheid education system with poorly resourced schools existing side by side with rich ones. As part of social cohesion, we need to introduce one nonracial education system.”

City Press recently revealed that some senior members of teachers’ union Sadtu had allegedly sold management posts for cash. Lesufi vows that this practice will end on his watch. “I want the best teachers from across the country to come to Gauteng and the rest can go elsewhere. If there were people who got to positions such as HODs and principals because they were members of a trade union or political party or they knew someone, it will all come to an end now.

“Our recruitment will be based on integrity, skills and qualification. When we appoint someone, everyone else should be able to agree and say: ‘He or she deserves it.’”

He has promised to tackle “lawlessness” within the system and has already met with Sadtu’s provincial leadership to outline his plans.

Lesufi says he wants all disciplinary cases involving teachers to be resolved within a month so that they don’t sit at home earning a salary for long periods while doing nothing.

He will also establish “tribunals” to deal with pupils’ ill-discipline.

Lesufi has compiled a list of names of gangster groups operating in Gauteng’s schools and wants to “crush” them.

And he warns that all pupils who share half-naked photographs of themselves in school uniform will be suspended from school.

His vision for “classrooms of the future” is premised on the belief that the days of chalk and blackboards are gone. “The plan is that in the next few years, grade 8 to 10 learners will be provided with digital equipment connected to the internet and will no longer need to use books and blackboards. Children would be given a gadget to own for three years. If I fail with this project, I’ll leave [office] the following day.”

Lesufi shrugs off talk that he is a supporter of President Jacob Zuma in a province whose ANC members are predominantly anti-Zuma.

“I am an ANC person and I remain that. We want to unify Gauteng not on the basis of personalities but on provision of services to our people.”

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