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Union Capture: Would the real elephant in the room blink


Dr Michael Kahn is an independent policy adviser and honorary research fellow in the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University, and a member of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science Policy.

The long-awaited report of the Volmink Committee that investigated allegations of “jobs for cash” in education is now in the public domain. The report is incisive and pulls no punches, despite the investigation being constrained by a wall of silence, if not fear.

In essence, the Volmink Committee report into allegations of “jobs for cash” in education report argues that “the elephant in the room” is the ceding of control of education by the state to Sadtu in all provinces except for Western Cape, Northern Cape and Free State.

The report describes how Sadtu uses its power to place its members in key positions, thereby rewarding them with well-paying jobs at the expense of delivering quality education. This narrative persuades that Sadtu control is limited to the personal benefits that this conveys to its membership through cadre deployment and patronage. These are valuable insights that coalesce into a fine set of recommendations.

Yet the above narrative describes symptoms, rather than the ultimate cause. That cause is the even bigger elephant in the room. This elephant is the collective beneficiary of the power play, namely the ruling party. How so? Quite simply, Sadtu members use schools as organisational bases whence they operate as party agents. Schools are ubiquitous, being spread across the country; they possess useful telecoms and office equipment, and are well suited to the purpose of political organisation. Sadtu shop stewards and officials act as party commissars who deliver the votes at election time.

The ANC thus needs Sadtu as much as Sadtu needs the ANC. This is the real elephant in the room.

It so happens that the commissars in KZN have displaced the traditional purveyors of votes, the Indunas. This has been a source of intense friction since the founding of Sadtu, with Sadtu shop stewards and ward councillors often in conflict with the displaced Indunas. Modernity collides with tradition.

The third elephant in the room is the SACP that controls the Sadtu leadership.

If the reader will forgive the pun, one may ask “so where to?” Given the balance of forces, a good place to start might be to turn to Lenin’s famous tome What is to be Done? that was written well before the failed 1905 revolution. And one might be forgiven for assuming that the Sadtu leadership is well acquainted with the text.

The Volmink Report criticises the fact of Sadtu behaving as an adversarial organisation rather than a professional one, yet here is Lenin: “All distinctions as between workers and intellectuals, not to speak of distinctions of trade and profession, in both categories, must be effaced.” If you like, Sadtu is true to source. Its leadership uses the organisation as a battering ram to secure party power.

A ministerial committee needs to steer away from overt political issues, but this writer is free to offer political analysis. So the place to start is to depoliticise Sadtu (and other teacher unions). Professionalise teaching by forbidding teachers to advance the interests of political parties from school premises and during school hours. Party politics, like organised religions, should end at the entrance to the school compound. Follow the recommendations of the Nongxa Committee of 2012 to declare teaching an essential service, and the National Planning Commission recommendations to invoke merit as a criterion for appointment to the public service, including education.

The Jobs for Cash report shows how effectively Sadtu has captured the education departments. Call this “union capture”. Likewise, one should query the extent to which other unions have captured their “line” departments at national or provincial level. One thinks immediately of Popcru, Nehawu…. This investigation waits for public demand to grow loud enough for ministers to act. We wait and see.

So, well done the Volmink Committee. You have addressed your mandate. The Department of Basic Education must now address the basics. Question is, who will blink first, Sadtu or the department? DM

Michael Kahn is a policy analyst who was a member of the task team that drafted the 1993 ANC Policy Framework for Education and Training, and was adviser to Minister Kader Asmal over 1999-2002.


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