Gareth Setati
Gareth Setati

Sadtu must pull up its panties

The first thing I came across on SADTU’s website when I visited it on 18/05/2013 is an announcement on “improvements in the working conditions” of teachers. This particular improvement relates to annual cost-of-living adjustments for educators. This is all well and it is needed, and granted SADTU is a union for teachers and not the children, but I could not help thinking about improvements in the circumstances of students under the watch of these unions.

Do you ever get the sense that SADTU may be too powerful for the good of this country and that it is sometimes in the private pursuit of myopic interests? This is how I have to come to feel and I wish to make the point that SADTU needs to reconsider its role in the development of this nation.

From where I sit, there is extraordinary disarray in the Basic Education sector, with the government desperately trying to steer things in a particular direction, even if incompetently at times, and SADTU often moving in another direction.

I have over the years observed SADTU being a force of ill progress through some of its actions that seem to mirror the problematic focus on the private benefits for teachers at the expense of the social benefits.

In this respect, youth you are on your own and you must put up a good fight. Hence I think going forward it will be vitally important for especially large youth formations and youth-focused lobby groups (e.g. ANC Youth League, DA Youth, Equal Education, etc) to rise up against this spectre of unionization to the detriment of society at large. Youth desperately needs to create a platform to contest SADTU’s stranglehold on our society, because it is this stranglehold that is key to resolving some of the bottlenecks in our basic education system. To reflect partly on the 1976 uprisings, SADTU may very well be the new enemy in the education sector.

SADTU must be vociferously challenged on the basics. Teachers must be in school on time teaching, not constantly politicking on the streets even calling for the minister to resign by childishly bandying around what is purported to be her panties.

By the way, that particular incident, irrespective of whether it was a case of “a few bad apples” or not, was totally and utterly disrespectful, disgusting, and did not lead by example – small wonder the moral degeneration we see in some of our youth!

Civil society and other influential interest groups must not participate in this groupthink phenomenon of allowing mediocrity to flourish, and standing pat fearful of the “almighty” and “powerful” union. I do not propose a Thatcherite suppression of unions; no doubt there is a place and good reason for teacher unions in South Africa, but the point being made here is that the status quo is not helping anyone.

And what about the other smaller teacher unions, shouldn’t they be vocal about the conduct of SADTU or are they also in cahoots with SADTU’s self-serving mandate? You are letting us down; your attempts at anything aren’t visible enough.

For example, it surpasses belief that as taxpayers we are still unable to monitor the performance of teachers even in some rudimentary form. Why is it okay, in this day and age, with the kind of problems we have in this sector, to frown upon the performance management of teachers? The often-cited concerns regarding the possible abuse of the rights of teachers must not gain prominence over what is “in the best interests of children” – the two issues are not mutually exclusive. We call on you to debate the issue amongst yourselves, save us all the gagging and public spats, and in the end reach a conclusion that you must be monitored, finish and klaar.

Since when can it be a contentious issue to the extent of a political impasse that employees can be rewarded and recognized for good work, and disciplined for bad conduct and dereliction of duty? Whatever are these complex considerations to performance management that are beyond conflict resolution? Was the struggle against apartheid colonialism an easier task than resolving a mere performance management issue? On this one I suspect collectively we are sleeping on the job, and it is the future generations that will suffer the most.

Taking a closer look at the teacher unions and their legacy since the new dispensation, what has SADTU and the other teacher unions done, which is significant and memorable, and we can be proud of nationally? Why are we ordinary citizens not raising our voice against this issue? Why do we allow mystification in a sector of such central importance?

The DA first, and then the ruling party proposed that education be declared an “essential service”. Whatever happened to that proposal? Has the ANC sat on its laurels yet again and allowed itself to be politically consolidated by its alliance partner? SADTU responded, in typical fashion, with resistance and cynicism, without doing the necessary PR to position their case so that we can understand their concerns. Posting the concerns on a website, and a few media briefings, unfortunately does not cut it. We in fact expect you SADTU to drive this debate to an amicable conclusion – that is if you really are acting not just in the interest of teachers, but of the children too. On another note, yes the DA may have put forward the debate around education being declared an “essential service”, but did we see them and the other opposition parties embarking on a march to raise this issue further, and did we see them dragging SADTU through the courts for this and that?

The movement Equal Education has since released a position paper on education as an essential service, satirically titled “teaching is essential, but it is not an essential service”. We would like to see this position paper being taken seriously by SADTU.

Another big part of the problem is SADTU’s approach to criticisms or calls for particular concessions on their part. SADTU, instead of addressing issues pertaining to them, is ever quick to invoke the President to intervene directly in education; specifically to address the union’s separate demands that have little to do with the problems presented by certain of their positions.

Some of their demands are for the President to outlaw any class that has more than 40 learners in primary school and 35 in high school. They also want the president to fire any officials who fail to deliver textbooks and they have asked for the eradication of mud schools and classrooms under the tree.

Sure enough, the issues they raise are legitimate and need decisive action to resolve them, but shifting the focus away from the bottlenecks that the union’s involvement brings into the education sector is not the way to go. It is also a fallacy of sorts to approach the problem that way.

So while we call on SADTU to get its ducks in a row and play ball in the best interests of the students, the government must equally play ball and show progress in terms of SADTU’s demands.

However, the apathy regarding the impact of SADTU (and other role players) in the basic education sector needs to come an end.

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