South Africa

Sadtu’s march, Cape Town: Full-blown strike on the horizon

By Rebecca Davis 25 April 2013

On Wednesday, Sadtu members across the country took to the streets to call for the resignation of Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga and director general Bobby Soobrayan. The teachers’ union was hoping for a turnout of 25,000 nationwide, but in Cape Town only about 1,500 marched to Parliament, although the Western Cape education department’s report indicated that 2,400 teachers took part in protest action altogether. Sadtu warned that a full strike could be on the cards next. By REBECCA DAVIS.

On an unseasonably hot Wednesday morning in Cape Town, a sea of red T-shirted Sadtu members gathered at the Keizersgracht in preparation to march to Parliament to make their feelings known. Top of the agenda was their frustration with Motshekga and Soobrayan, and there are suggestions that the latter is their primary target. An unnamed provincial leader told the Mail &Guardian this week that, “The real target is Soobrayan… If Soobrayan were to be axed, I promise you, we’d stop calling for Motshekga’s resignation.”

While Motshekga was the subject of a number of protest songs on the march, many marchers carried placards featuring detailed accusations against Soobrayan. In addition to there being differences of opinion between Sadtu and Soobrayan on policy matters – such as the remuneration of Grade 12 markers – Sadtu also accuses Soobrayan of financial mismanagement. In particular, the union alleges that Soobrayan spent R46,908 of department funds on accommodation, car hire and a business-class flight over the Easter weekend. Sadtu disputes the idea that this expenditure was work-related, given its timing.

Photo: Sadtu protestors stream down Cape Town’s Darling Street en route to Parliament.

The Cape Town protest got off to a slow start, with the delays to the march’s beginning attributed to the fact that national leaders had been unable to land at Cape Town International Airport on Wednesday morning. As I photographed the protestors’ growing ranks, a Sadtu provincial official called me over. He taught at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, he explained, as well as working in the Sadtu provincial office. He had a request: would I march up front with him, holding the Sadtu banner? This would be in order to show that “it’s blacks and whites here together”. I declined, and asked him where the white teachers were. “They’re coming,” he said confidently.

But there were few white faces evident on the march. What there were, however, were schoolchildren, most of them in uniform.Western Cape provincial Cosatu secretary Tony Ehrenreich had previously called on pupils and parents to join the action – a statement which was condemned by both the DA and the Department of Basic Education. Western Cape education MEC Donald Grant had urged pupils to ignore Sadtu and Cosatu’s call, and also encouraged parents to enquire what substitute teaching was being put in place for children taught by striking educators.

Donald Grant is not a universally loved figure, however, largely as a result of his controversial attempts to close Western Cape schools, and small groups of schoolchildren turned out nonetheless. Siphelo Ndabeni, 17, a Grade 11 pupil from Sizimisele Technical High School in Khayelitsha, told the Daily Maverick that he and his friends were participating in the march “to support our teachers”. Ndabeni said that his high school was under-resourced, and gave the example that pupils did not have access to the necessary books. “We have to go to exterior libraries because the books are not in our library,” he explained. Was he not worried that they were missing out on valuable learning time? Ndabeni paused. “It does worry us in a way,” he said, “but we are here to help the teachers find solutions to issues.”

Photo: School pupils joined teachers in the Sadtu protest in Cape Town.

Later, outside Parliament, a group of Grade 8 girls from a school in New Crossroads stood together. They had come to march, they said. Did their teachers tell them to come? “Yes,” they agreed, nodding. Sadtu members wearing T-shirts reading “Every Child Needs A Teacher” pushed past them. The Western Cape education department’s report, released after the march, stated that 48 schools were closed across the province on Wednesday. “We have yet to receive reports of learner absenteeism,” the statement read. “However, learners at the 48 schools that closed would have been affected.”

Although the turnout for the march initially looked poor, by the time the protestors made their way through the streets to the Parliament buildings, there were probably at least 1,500 people present, although many did not stick around long for the speeches at Parliament. Messages of support were delivered from Popcru (the police union), Sasco (the students’ organisation), Nehawu (education, health and allied workers), Denosa (the nurses’ union), as would be expected. Less expected was the announcement that the American Federation of Teachers had sent somebody called Lorna (surname not provided) along to show its support for Sadtu. Lorna was not produced to make a speech, however.

Tony Ehrenreich brought out typically fiery rhetoric, saying that Cosatu supports Sadtu “without reservation”. Ehrenreich did not dwell on issues like the dispute over remuneration for exam markers, preferring to focus on the wider problems within the education sector. He said the trade unions were “committed to making sure learning takes place all the time”, but said that the inequalities in educational resources were unsustainable. “Facilities of schools on the Cape Flats are half those of schools in the shadow of Table Mountain,” Ehrenreich said. “Teachers in townships must do double the work because they have double the kids.”

A pupil representative of Cosas (the Congress of South African Students) also took the wider view, saying that “we as learners from disadvantaged communities demand a decent education,” as well as decent salaries for teachers. “Why must we suffer?” she asked. “Is it because our parents don’t have enough money to send us to well-resourced schools?”