South Africa

Education as essential service: Sadtu’s really, really not happy

By Greg Nicolson 13 February 2013

The South African Democratic Teachers Union hit back against the ANC’s call to ban teacher strikes and picketed outside the Department of Basic Education in Pretoria on Tuesday. Instead of taking on the party that’s bothering them, the union listed the problems with the education system and called for the head of basic education, Director General Bobby Soobrayan. By GREG NICOLSON.

Protocol at union demonstrations follows a similar pattern. As the crowd gathers (on Tuesday it grew to about 500) a local or provincial leader controls the microphone and leads songs and chants. They yell “phantsi (insert key gripe) phantsi!” and the crowd follows before they sing the appropriately modified struggle song.

At Sadtu’s rally outside the Department of Basic Education (DBE), however, the early MC took a different approach. He yelled phantsi, all fine up until now, then listed so many issues that the crowd got lost trying to follow.

Sadtu used its picket on Tuesday to deflect attention away from the impact strikes have on basic education. It wanted to focus on the shortcomings of government, and DG Bobby Soobrayan in particular. The placards were telling. There was “Fire all corrupt officials”, “Develop proper infrastructure”, “Promote quality public education”, “Fire Bobby Soobrayan” and, of course, the cause of the protest, “Away with declaring education an essential service”.

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Organised labour groups have criticised the ANC national executive committee’s resolution to try to declare education an essential service, which would lump teachers in with other groups who aren’t legally allowed to go on strike, namely police officers, paramedics and emergency workers. Opinion has been split on the issue. Many critics blame Sadtu for interrupting schooling and are happy the ANC finally want to take decisive action on the dismal education system. Others believe in teachers’ right to withdraw their labour when absolutely necessary. Yet others simply point out that it’s probably unconstitutional to classify education as an essential service.

Sadtu General Secretary Magwena Maluleke spoke to Daily Maverick outside the DBE offices. Teacher strikes are just one issue, he said, and stopping them won’t solve education problems. Resource issues such as classroom sizes of 150 students and students learning under trees are the greater challenge, said Maluleke. “Declaring education an essential service is not going to build a classroom,” he said on the sidelines of the demonstration.

The Democratic Alliance this week said parliamentary replies from the ANC showed that KwaZulu-Natal had 670,000 students trying to learn in classes of more than 55 students.

Unions knew that classifying education as an essential service would likely be proposed to solve some of these issues. Cosatu’s own analysis of the National Planning Commission’s diagnostic report said: “The NPC statement about teachers is two-fold. Teachers are not supported, but teachers are also ill-disciplined, period. They engage in strike action, they hide behind complex labour regulations, they hold union meetings during school hours. In short, the implication is that part of the problem with the education system is the labour market dispensation that governs the education system. Logically the reform that will be proposed is to either ban strike action or place teachers under essential services (as the DA has suggested), introduce flexibility in the education labour market by making it easy to hire and fire teachers, limit unionisation of teachers or devise ways to make it difficult for teacher unions to operate in the education system. If this is the direction that the NPC will be taking, we wish to remind them of the Freedom Charter: ‘Teachers shall have all the rights of other citizens.’”

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That’s the general line of Sadtu, which believes teacher strikes aren’t the real problem. Asked whether classifying education as an essential service would help re-deploy teachers to areas in the Eastern Cape where they needed from where they are oversupplied, a move Sadtu has previously resisted with the threat of sriking, Maluleke said the union was willing to re-deploy teachers but that the department had failed to abide by the conditions of the collective agreement as to the details of their deployment. The union has continued to fight the re-deployments.

According to Maluleke, the department is to blame and Soobrayan must be fired as an example to all ineffective or corrupt employees. “He is incompetent. He has no capacity. He is evasive and he has literally killed collective bargaining. For the four years that he was here we have signed nothing but two agreements that he cannot implement because he didn’t read them… The problem is, the department has no capacity to follow through on its agreements,” said Maluleke.

Maluleke called on President Jacob Zuma to intervene directly in education. Sadtu hopes the president will use his state of the nation address on Tuesday to outlaw any class that has more than 40 learners in primary school and 35 in high school, he said. The union wants the president to fire any officials who fail to deliver textbooks. It wants the eradication of mud schools and classrooms under the tree.

The demonstration was attended by Sadtu officials and members from across the country. They were cautious to talk to Daily Maverick on Tuesday, following protocol and pointing to the leadership. But Sadtu’s goal seems to have been achieved. It proved that in the education crisis, South African students have been failed by more than just the unions. And the union reminded the ANC that any attempt to ban strikes would, well, result in mass strikes. DM

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All photos: Members of the South African Democratic Teachers Union picket outside the Department of Basic Education offices in Pretoria. (Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick)


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