The Tokiso Review on labour strikes found that the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) was responsible for 42 % of all working days lost due to industrial action between 1995- 2009.
There are two important factors to consider when analyzing this statistic. This first is SADTU a proportion of the labour force, and the second is the 2007 public sector strike.
With a membership of 240,000 SADTU is the largest union in the public service and the second largest union in the country representing nearly two-thirds of South Africa's educators, and over 13% of COSATU’s paid-up membership. A high proportion of working days lost are therefore to be expected (although not 42%).
The 2007 public sector strike explains the disproportionately high percentage, as explained by Tanya Venter, the CEO of Tokiso, quoted in Business Day:
“(The 2007 strike was) the largest in SA’s history by the public sector, of which Sadtu was the largest participating union. Between 1995 and 2009, the number of work-days lost to strikes per annum was on average between 1- and 2-million, however in 2007, this trend line spiked to 13-million workdays lost…. The majority of work- days lost that are attributed to Sadtu fall within the 2007 strike. Indeed, this is confirmed by the Tokiso Review statistic on the number of strikes (as opposed to working days lost) over the 1995 to 2009 period, where only 2% of strikes fell within the health and education sectors.”
Although the 2007 strike had a very debilitating effect on education, there is a clear difference between one massive strike as compared to the 15 years of lost working days which a superficial, and incorrect, reading of the Tokiso Review implies. Teachers of this country have spent many years fighting for a decent salary in the form of an OSD (Occupation Specific Dispensation), which they were finally able to attain through the 2007 strike. It is unforgivable that the details of this agreement have not been fully and punctually adhered to by government.
In light of these facts, any response that calls for education to be made an ‘essential service’, thereby making strike action almost impossible, is extremist and amounts to a “knee jerk” reaction. More importantly, it turns a blind eye to the realities faced by teachers every day.
Some have argued that, days lost to strike action, are the core reason for the increased failure rate in South Africa last year and that SADTU cannot coexist with quality education. In this press statement Equal Education offers a more nuanced view.
SADTU must take some blame for the crisis in education in South Africa, but it is a grave mistake to see the destruction of teacher unions and teacher rights as the path to quality education.
Many of those attacking SADTU are doing so unconstructively. They show no understanding of the inequalities in education, inherited from the past, some of which are being perpetuated today. Like the majority of learners in this country, many of our teachers have to endure teaching under trees or in mud schools. The majority of rural and township schools lack laboratories, computer labs and adequate textbooks. Only 7% of schools have functional libraries; this in a country where for the majority of people most homes lack books. Staff rooms are cramped and inadequate for the marking of work and projects. In many schools the classes are 60 learners or more. In these schools the teachers are responsible for twice the number of students and must mark twice as many tests, projects and homework assignments, but are paid less than their counterparts in middle class schools.
Most of our teachers were educated at schools that gave them skills based on an inferior Bantu Education. Their own school experiences left them with an inadequate foundation. We want our teachers to provide a knowledge-rich and inspiring, yet structured and disciplined educational environment but their own school experiences did not provide them with an example to emulate. They went on to attend teacher training colleges that were sub-standard. The in-service training that has been put in place to compensate for this disadvantage has been inadequate.
When Outcomes Based Education (OBE) was introduced most teachers were given less than a week’s training. The notion that teachers were now ‘facilitators’ and later ‘educators’, who should not impose knowledge or structure on their classes, resulted in mass confusion and a regression in educational quality. Only now, more than a decade later, the Minister and the President are talking about textbooks, lesson plans and pacing to ensure that the curriculum is covered.
Moreover, the focus on days lost to strikes distracts from the more serious problems of days lost to understandable factors such as overwork and stress, and unacceptable factors such late-coming and absenteeism after pay day.
We call on government to improve the conditions of work and pay of our teachers, to increase the supply of teachers through universities and high-quality colleges, and to invest in ongoing in-service training and support. We call on government and unions to reduce barriers to entry into the teaching profession so that university graduates from a variety of fields can spend a few years performing community service as teachers in poor schools, and so that foreign teachers with good qualifications and experience can teach in poor schools. We will campaign for these things.
Equal Education acknowledges that SADTU has the right to freedom of association, expression and the right to strike legally like all people in this country. These rights are fundamental rights for the workers (including teachers) to negotiate wage increases and come together in a union (as a collective) and bargain with the authorities. In a society such as ours, where teachers are overworked, underpaid and disrespected, we should not prevent teachers from organizing peacefully and legally.
It is our belief that our whole society and the Department of Education in particular, is failing the children of this country by continuing to disregard their teachers. We have put our children and therefore our future in the hands of these professionals. Our care and regard towards them will be reflected in the quality of our workforce, our ability to grow as a nation and the overall position of our nation on the world stage.
However, teachers and SADTU are indeed partly to be blamed. Equal Education believes that SADTU, the biggest teacher’s union in our country, has on many occasions been a distraction to education and has contributed to the crisis in education in this country. It has prevented learning when it has called illegal strikes and used force against other educators and learners. Equal Education condemns any use of violence against teachers and children and any illegal strikes. Secondly, it has reinforced society’s low regard for teachers when drunk and poor performing teachers have been protected. Thirdly, it has focused all its efforts on protecting low-performance amongst teachers, and demanding salary increases, but has neglected to use the same urgency to demand teacher training and support from the government to improve teaching and learning.
The members of Equal Education expect more from the teachers of this country. We expect them to arrive on time, well-prepared and maximize teaching and learning time. We ask teachers to read more, and embrace opportunities to increase their knowledge and expertise. We expect teachers to go beyond the letter of their contracts, to offer extra classes, to offer sports and extra-murals in the afternoons, and to be available to help students, particularly the poor and working class children, to pass their exams and get the most out of school experience. We will campaign for these things, and while we will support and respect our teachers, we will hold them to these high standards.