The 81.3% success was a team effort

Department of basic education director-general Mathanzima Mweli. Picture: Lucky Nxumalo
Department of basic education director-general Mathanzima Mweli. Picture: Lucky Nxumalo

The man behind the country’s historic 81.3% matric pass rate is in the dark about whether his contract, which expires in August, will be renewed or not. But Mathanzima Mweli, the director-general of the department of basic education, told City Press on Friday that he was going about his work as usual.

Mweli has been at the helm of the department since August 2015. When asked if he would like to stay on, Mweli said he had no expectations.

“The minister [of basic education, Angie Motshekga] has not said anything [to me about my contract],” Mweli said.

Before he was appointed to the top job, he headed the department’s curriculum division from 2012. This was after he left the Eastern Cape as the national intervention task team leader when that province was placed under administration in 2011. This was because of maladministration that resulted in scholar transport and feeding scheme programmes being halted. Before he left, he had drawn up a rescue plan for the province that focused on teaching and learning.

I’ve worked with [many] politicians. She’s one of the best I’ve worked with
Department of basic education director-general Mathanzima Mweli

Mweli said he served at the pleasure of the minister and President Cyril Ramaphosa. He added that he had an “excellent” working relationship with Motshekga, a rare thing in the public service.

“I’ve worked with [many] politicians. She’s one of the best I’ve worked with. She is motherly, but she won’t protect you if you’ve done something wrong. My colleagues envy me. She’s a rare quality in government,” Mweli said.

He said Motshekga had a thorough understanding of the workings of public service, as she served as a director in the presidency under Nelson Mandela between 1994 and 1997. He also said Motshekga was not easy to deceive because she stuck to government policies.

“You’ve to be transparent with her. She has an eye for detail,” he said.

Mweli would not take credit for last year’s historic increase in the matric pass rate. Instead, he attributed it to teamwork between provinces, teachers and pupils.

At the matric results announcement on Tuesday, Motshekga attributed the improved results to collaboration with nongovernmental organisations and social partners.

Mweli admitted to City Press that it was difficult to manage the education system.

“It is complex and difficult because you deliver through others, and you have to be a team player and harness the expertise that is there [in the provinces].

“I have no influence on who gets appointed in provinces. That’s a purview of the provincial executive council [the provincial cabinet].

“We only work in collaboration. Whoever is appointed, we make sure that we support them to succeed. Not all advice is taken on board by all. Fortunately, we have a team of heads of departments and the MECs who work with the minister. We listen to one another, persuade and support one another.

“The role of the department of basic education is to support and monitor provinces and share experiences where things are working with those where things are not working. We respect each other,” he said.

He would not take credit even for the marginal improvement in the Eastern Cape’s matric pass rate since 2018, saying this was down to teamwork among officials and former education MEC Mandla Makupula, who died in 2018.

His death coincided with the province breaking through the 70% pass rate threshold, a feat it had battled to achieve over the years.

“I don’t want to take credit for that. If there’s credit, give it to Eastern Cape leaders for focusing on teaching and learning, and to the late MEC Makupula for focusing on that in the last days of his life,” Mweli said.

While in the Eastern Cape, Mweli said they had changed the administration’s focus from annual battles with unions over posts – the allocation of teachers to schools – to teaching and learning.

“We went to the 23 education districts and made comprehensive presentations to principals and schools on the data of Eastern Cape performance and its potential to be able to move up from the bottom. That’s what we did when I was there. The team I left behind continued that.”

He said that the province’s head of department, Themba Kojana, was a breath of fresh air, as he consolidated the 23 education districts, bringing them down to 12.

Despite last year’s matric pass rate being hailed by Motshekga as evidence that the system had stabilised and matured, the DA insisted this week that this was not the case.

The DA said that the “real matric pass rate” for last year was 38.9%, citing the fact that, in 2017, a total of 1 052 080 pupils were enrolled in Grade 10, yet only 409 906 passed matric last year.

On Tuesday, the party’s shadow minister for basic education, Nomsa Marchesi, said: “This means only 38.9% of Grade 10 pupils actually wrote and passed matric.”

Mweli said the DA’s criticism of the matric pass rate was not based on objective facts.

“I don’t know what formula they are using. The pass rate can only be determined by those who wrote [the matric exams] divided by those who passed. Even a Grade 1 [pupil] will tell you that. The failure rate is the difference. There’s throughput, which is those who enter and leave the system,” Mweli said.

He said the department’s data show that 60.4% of pupils finished their studies in record time.

“This is in the technical report, which says there are pupils aged 26 who write matric, but they should have done so when they were about 18 years old.”

He said the majority of pupils were not dropping out, but were retained in the system and were instead repeating grades more than three times. To avoid pushing these pupils through to matric, the department was introducing schools of specialisation.

Another plan is to introduce a general education certificate in Grade 9, which will hopefully reduce poor performance in matric.

The department was also working with universities to produce a calibre of teachers who would be able to respond to the fourth industrial revolution and the new curriculum, which will include coding and robotics. Mweli said the National Development Plan, government’s blueprint that spells out targets that need to be attained, made it mandatory for provinces to set up these specialisation schools.

But he admitted that the stigma surrounding technical education remained a challenge. This was evident through the low uptake of technical subjects. He said he had asked MPs to engage with the public to end the stigma associated with technical education.

“It’s a societal matter. I have asked the members of [Parliament’s] portfolio committee to engage with the public about the value of technical education and artisan skills. Artisans can earn more than a doctor does,” Mweli said.

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