South Africa

Sadtu marches: For what?

By Greg Nicolson 24 April 2013

Teachers’ union Sadtu expects 25,000 members to join marches to the Union Buildings and Parliament today. It’s the culmination of a campaign calling for the resignation of Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga and her director general, Bobby Soobrayan. The officials, however, are likely to keep their posts unless the president is sympathetic to the union’s calls. By GREG NICOLSON.

This isn’t the first time the education officials have faced pressure to resign. During the Limpopo textbook scandal last year the ANC national executive committee was said to be split on whether Motshekga should be sacked. The ANC Youth League wanted the minister to “do the honourable thing and resign”. The Congress of South African Students said she must “resign immediately [to] spare President Jacob Zuma the pain of having to fire her.” The DA offered an ultimatum: improve delivery or hit the road. A presidential task team found Soobrayan should be investigated for his indecisiveness.


The two officials never wavered in dismissing the criticism. Zuma, who ahead of the ANC’s Mangaung election needed Motshekga’s support as head of the party’s Women’s League, wasn’t going to sack the minister or shuffle her to another Cabinet position. Soobrayan kept his job. Even Limpopo education MEC Dickson Masemola, shown by the scandal to be completely incompetent, wasn’t removed by the ANC.

Motshekga and Soobrayan are once again facing calls for their resignations but this time from the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu). Instead of the utter breakdown of public education in South Africa, the union is mostly concerned about the validity of the bargaining council system.

It started in April 2011 when the Collective Agreement on Improvement on Remuneration of Markers in National Examinations was signed. The agreement acknowledged exam officials haven’t received a pay increase for eight years and it committed to a 100% pay rise “to be in line with the current practice”. Essentially, it turned examination-related work into a pretty decent gig. It closed with the signatures of director general Soobrayan and Sadtu general secretary Mugwena Maluleke.

Responding to Sadtu’s calls for her resignation, Motshekga said the increased pay rate was an error that would have cost provinces R700 million, money they didn’t have. “The senior manager and middle manager responsible for the error were disciplined and given final written warnings for their negligence in this matter. As a result the department did not proceed with the implementation of the erroneous agreement. The unions accepted in principle that a bona fide error had occurred and this led to the addendum to Collective Agreement 1 of 2011, which was signed on 18 December 2011,” said the minister in March.

“In various meetings with unions held to discuss this matter the director general was assured of the support of the unions, including Sadtu, in his attempts to find a solution. Sadtu’s attitude began to change as the union failed to attend meetings arranged to discuss this matter. Sadtu rejected various offers made by the department to find a resolution to this matter.

“The union’s position on this matter has left the department with no option but to withdraw from the dispute it had lodged with the Education Labour Relations Council (ELRC) to clarify the validity of the agreement. This means in effect that the members of Sadtu have gained nothing from the union’s intransigent position on this matter,” Motshekga concluded in March this year.

In a detailed response, Sadtu’s Maluleke said the Department of Basic Education was “deliberately misleading fellow tax-paying South Africans” and expressed dismay at how Motshekga and Soobrayan handle labour issues. The original agreement was signed after a series of meetings with a specialised task team formed to look at the pay increase, said the union.

After signing, the department disputed the figures and both parties were set to have the matter mediated by the ELRC. The Department of Basic Education proposed an 11.5% settlement at a conciliation meeting but Sadtu members wanted the matter arbitrated. Sadtu alleges the department used delaying tactics to avoid arbitration and then Motshekga simply decided to terminate the initial agreement after almost two years of stuttering negotiations.

That’s the nub of today’s marches. “Since 1994, [that] has never happened in the history of collective bargaining that a minister withdraws a collective agreement. Such an act undermines the very spirit of democracy, labour, peace and our constitution,” said Maluleke in April. “We wrote to minister asking her to remove the withdrawal by no later than end of business 28 February 2013 as we deemed the withdrawal to be undermining collective bargaining processes and a recipe for labour unrest. To date, we have not received a response except acknowledgement of receipt. This left us with no option but to take the matter to the Labour Court.” The Labour Court reinstated the agreement while it waits until August for a full trial.

But Sadtu wants the Motshekga-Soobrayan duo to resign now. Unions will hit back hard when the legal foundations of their work is challenged, as was seen with labour’s attack on the Free Market Foundation for attempting to limit the reach of bargaining council agreements. Resisting arbitration and mediation, Motshekga terminated the pay increase for examiners because she said there wasn’t enough money in the coffers. This came after what Sadtu saw as an insulting disregard for labour.

That’s the reason teachers have been on a go-slow, restricting their days to seven hours in the classroom with no administrative or other work, and that’s the reason teachers won’t be in schools today. The union sees itself as not simply fighting for wage increases for examiners but defending the whole collective bargaining system. It also feels under threat from government leaders who want to impose strict controls on performance, harking back to Apartheid school inspectors.

Sadtu’s demand that the education heads resign, however, will fall on deaf ears. If Motshekga and Soobrayan were to resign it could have been over the Limpopo textbook scandal or any number of other national disgraces that mar the education crisis, not a fight with the union that is widely perceived as another obstacle to effective public education in South Africa.

The decision over who ultimately runs the education system rests with the man in charge at the Union Buildings, the president. Zuma wasn’t even remotely interested in last year’s textbook scandal and never hinted that he might sack Motshekga. Remember, he can always cite the improving matric pass rate as a sign she’s steering the system to success.

The best Sadtu can hope for is a Cabinet reshuffle, but it will have to bring a whole lot more to the table to convince Zuma to punish an ally. Both Motshekga and Soobrayan, however, can avoid a year of substandard teaching and continued strikes by speeding up the process of mediation and finding an agreement with Sadtu before the August Labour Court appearance.

If their aim is to tame the unions, this is hardly the way to do it. The initial bargaining agreement might have been wrong, but the department was stupid enough to sign it. But if Motshekga wants a brief reprieve she can take matters into her own hands and fire Sadtu’s enemy number one, Soobrayan, the man who signed the flawed agreement, and who has failed to act to act decisively to improve education.

That wouldn’t follow the ANC’s wait-and-see policy, would it? Far better to let another day of school go by with a public education system in which the interests of the pupil come last. DM

Photo: Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga briefs reporters on national curriculum changes during a news conference at the Education Department in Pretoria, Thursday, 29 October 2009. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA


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