A showdown is looming between the South African Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) and government as they prepare to go head-to-head on a number of contentious issues regarding education. Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga says South Africa has the highest teacher absentee rates in the region, and is introducing measures to improve and monitor attendance. Sadtu says Motshekga is trying to make teachers “look bad” and is creating an impression that they “need to be policed”. And all of this comes even before the real clash over education as an “essential service” takes place. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
The ANC was quite resolute about its plans for education following its national executive committee lekgotla earlier this month. “As number one priority, the ANC and its government will leave no stone unturned in making education an essential service,” ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe said in a statement.
The South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) immediately shrieked in protest, saying the legal definition of an “essential service” meant that if there were an interruption, “the life, personal safety or health of the whole or any part of the population” would be endangered.
“The reality is that when teaching is interrupted due to strikes, it does not endanger the life, personal safety or health of the learners. The functions performed by educators (teaching) can therefore never be classified as an ‘essential service’.
“We don’t believe that declaring education as an essential service will address the challenges facing education. We have said many a times that problems confronting education are systematic and multifaceted. Targeting one component in the system which is the teachers will therefore not solve the problem,” Sadtu said.
As a result, President Jacob Zuma backpedalled on the ANC resolution on education as an essential service in his State of the Nation Address.
“We want to see everyone in the country realising that education is an essential service for our nation. By saying education is an essential service we are not taking away the constitutional rights of teachers as workers, such as the right to strike. It means we want the education sector and society as a whole to take education more seriously than is happening currently.”
Zuma then dangled a sweetener for teachers, saying “decent salaries and conditions of service will play an important role in attracting, motivating and retaining skilled teachers.” He said he had directed a presidential remuneration commission, investigating payment and conditions of service of all state employees, to make teachers its first priority.
Briefing the media at Parliament on Tuesday, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga took a harder line on teachers, particularly on absenteeism and “lack of accountability”.
“We have the highest rate of absenteeism in SADC [the Southern African Development Community]. We’re at 19 days [average per teacher] a year. It’s huge. An average of 10% nationally,” Motshekga said. Based on the compliment of 392,000 teachers employed at public schools around the country, this translates to almost 7.5 million school days lost a year.
Motshekga said there were various reasons for the high absentee numbers, ranging from “serious neglect of duties and responsibilities”, to the burden of disease and poor administration. Travelling long distances between their homes and schools was also a reason teachers were late or absent from work, Motshekga said.
“The department has taken some measures to enforce teacher accountability… We are currently exploring various mechanisms to monitor staff attendance.
“The biometric system will be piloted as done currently in the Western Cape and the Northern Cape. And this is not a policing system, but a management tool to monitor school attendance for both teachers and learners,” Motshekga said.
She said the system is aimed at relieving school principals of the burden of clocking in teachers manually through a paper-based system, which every school currently uses.
“The main aim of the system is to ensure attendance, contact time between learner and teacher, which in turn has been proven to improve learner performance,” Motshekga said.
The process of rolling out the system has not yet started. The Department of Basic Education “will consult widely before implementation”, hence the cost and timeframes are still not available, she said.
However, when asked if Sadtu is being consulted on the new system, Motshekga said there was no need for consultation on the IT clock-in system as it was merely a management tool which had nothing to do with the conditions of service of teachers.
But Sadtu does not agree. Sadtu spokeswoman Nomusa Cembi challenged Motshekga on the absentee figures, questioning the research that had produced the figures. She said by “spinning” the issue in public, Motshekga “makes us look bad” and “makes us look like we need to be policed”.
She said Sadtu also did not know how Motshekga had decided that a biometric system was the most pressing need in education when resources and facilities in schools were still difficult to access. Cembi said the union was also worried about the cost of such a system and the process of granting tenders for it.
Motshekga reiterated Zuma’s announcement on the establishment of the presidential remuneration commission, with special focus on teachers.
“Government is currently revising salaries and conditions of service of teachers in order to attract, motivate and retain skilled teachers,” she said.
But this did not appease Sadtu. Cembi says while improved teacher salaries would deal with some of the problems in education it could not deal with all.
“The minister’s attitude is ‘give them money and they will shut-up’. Well we won’t shut up,” Cembi said.
Sadtu has also ratcheted up the pressure on Motshekga on the Limpopo textbooks saga, demanding that she first fire her director-general, Bobby Soobrayan, for his alleged role in the delay of delivery last year. Motshekga told the media on Tuesday that she has now written to Sadtu, responding to the issues it raised with her.
Daily Maverick has learnt that Motshekga has told Sadtu that she is standing by her director-general, a move likely to infuriate Sadtu further.
Cembi said although she has not seen the letter, Sadtu was disappointed that Motshekga was communicating on the issue via the media.
“She needs to come and talk to us. We raised the matter directly with her, we didn’t just go to the media first,” Cembi said.
All of the crossfire is, however, a precursor to a bigger fight coming over the essential service issue.
Motshekga told the media on Tuesday she was “satisfied with the explanation that the president gave on the matter during the State of the Nation Address.”
She said the term “essential service” was not “articulated in a legal sense” and did not refer only to teachers. She said government wanted “all of us in the sector” to see education as a priority issue.
“It is something that is very critical, dealing with the wellbeing of children, national growth, stability of country and economic prosperity… It can’t be left to chance, it can’t be treated casually,” Motshekga said. She said the state therefore wanted a cessation of hostilities and “amicable ways of resolving conflict” instead of teachers embarking on strike action.
She said, however, that while a change to conditions of service to declare teaching an essential service was “not on the table”, this could be pursued at a later stage by the minister of public service and administration. Motshekga said it was not her responsibility to deal with such issues.
“But we are not there as yet,” Motshekga said.
It is clear that Sadtu also knows that, despite assurances from the president, this is not the end of the essential service story and is therefore bracing for a fight. Sadtu is, however, probably still unaware that rather than the meek Motshekga, it will have to go to war with the much tougher Lindiwe Sisulu on this matter, if it is placed on the table.
The good cop/bad cop routine by Zuma and Motshekga is obviously designed to keep Sadtu guessing while government assesses what changes can be made in education without inciting industrial action by teachers a year before the national elections.
Not only the fate of 12 million school children in 22,000 schools in the country are dependent on government and Sadtu ironing out their issues; it is also the fate of our country that hangs in the balance.
Raising the skills level of generations to come is critical, or South Africa will be left in the dust of other developing countries. Perhaps both the political and labour leaders should bear this in mind as they stare each other down. Perhaps, for once, they both need to realise there are more important things than cheap political victories. DM