Sidelined in the corridors of power

2010-10-23 16:42

Ian Scott is a University of Cape Town professor working on an idea to replace three-year ­bachelor’s degrees with four-year ones. His proposals are based on solid research and years of experience with under-prepared students at a ­premier university.

When I first joined the ­parliamentary committee on higher education and training I suggested that we examine Scott’s idea.

After forwarding the issue twice and having it ignored; the chairperson of the parliamentary committee, Marius Fransman, once remarked that he was not inclined to give me the floor ­because of what I had said about him in the press, as if that was relevant.

Undeterred, I put forward the issue once again – this time in writing – but to no avail.

It was abundantly clear that there was no process at all for MPs to get proposals placed on the agenda of a committee that exercises oversight over the ministry responsible for higher education.

But there is a deeper issue at play here: instead of parliamentary ­committees being the instruments for the cause of holding government to account they become handmaidens to government?and soft-peddle difficult issues, rubber-stamp ministerial requests and massage agendas ­behind the scenes.

The reason for the inability of the committee to do what is required by the Constitution is the supremacy of the ANC’s solidarity requirements, which suffocate good ideas and ­initiatives that benefit the nation, and sideline ­common-sense pragmatism.

The absence of parliamentary committee process is the space in which this ANC solidarity thrives and all manner of political bullying flourishes.

Here’s but one example: Gwebs Qonde is a senior official of the South African Communist Party and is a ­political advisor to Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande.

An appointed official, he occasionally sits in as an observer.

He may not formally speak or vote but the latitude for informal influence is vast.

The first time I met Qonde, he ­approached me and berated me for abandoning my so-called “progressive credentials”.

The second encounter was worse: addressing me as a wielder of a “big stick” for ­expressing my views on Nzimande in the press, Qonde accused me of being “over the top”.

But it was the third encounter where the gloves came off: Qonde told me that I was an ­obstacle to the achievement of our class goals.

I was a counter-revolutionary defending the interests of the ­dominant classes.

I retorted that our goal was to defend the Constitution and not the class interests of some.

He revealed his hand by saying that our governing document was itself an obstacle to socialism. So there you have it.

Then there is Nzimande himself.

Former higher education director-general Mary Metcalfe brought three bills before the parliamentary committee, saying it was unnecessary to have public hearings as they were merely of a technical nature, transferring ­responsibilities from the old ­department to the new.

True for one of the bills, but the ­others went far beyond technical changes to compel foreign higher ­education institutions to register with our qualifications authorities and, on the other, give Nzimande control over our further education and training (FET) colleges for its own sake.

No proper public hearings were held and the bills were not gazetted. Legal advice to us was to post strong ­comment and oppose the most ­egregious of the bills in Parliament. ­After a caucus discussion, we did.

Nzimande hit back. Among my sins were that I did not send him an apology for not attending his FET college summit.

I sent Nzimande a note saying that he was wrong and unkind as the reason for my absence was a scheduled visit to the hospital. The minister nodded his head as if to apologise.

But I misread the gesture. The next day he repeated his remarks as if ­nothing had happened.

»  James is an MP who currently serves as the country’s shadow minister of basic education

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