Press "Enter" to skip to content

The corrosive influence of unions on SA schools

The Constitution enjoins us to “heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights”. To “improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person”.

In South Africa we have an excellent track record and capacity for developing innovative development strategies, policy instruments and state institutions to implement them but we fail miserably in implementing them successfully!

Our social expenditure ranks among the highest in our group of comparable countries and yet we have very poor outcomes as measured by global indicators like the human development index. We have an unemployment rate at more than 35%, a 65% youth unemployment rate, the highest wealth inequality in the world and more than 50% of the population receives social welfare as its only source of income. Clearly the critical issues here are not the soundness of our strategies but how we implement them.

Education and health systems play a key role in achieving the social justice we envisaged in the Constitution but we all know that they are dysfunctional. It is encouraging to note that there is now progressive and determined leadership in the health department to achieve better performance outcomes.

The situation in education warrants more attention.

Various research studies, by leading education experts, have demonstrated that our education system is hopelessly dysfunctional. We seem to have paid too much attention on equalising budgets post-1994 and less on the normal school activities of upholding standards, discipline, the efficient management of schools and the control and monitoring of competence and performance.

In attempting to comprehend the context and key drivers behind these lapses, we must confront the reasons why these shortcomings are less common in the schools that serve the middle and upper classes and yet are a characteristic feature of those that serve the majority — poor communities.

The defining difference between these two systems (one serving the majority, predominantly black and poor, and the other serving the more affluent and mixed) is that in the former normal school operations are the exception. In the latter, school operations run reasonably well. The performance outcomes in all categories attest to this state of affairs!

There is overwhelming evidence that leadership and the efficient management of school operations has collapsed for those schools that serve predominantly poor communities. This is due mainly to the debilitating and corrosive influence of the powerful South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), which is a significant member of Cosatu.

In many areas, principals are members of Sadtu and they are under enormous pressure and intimidation when they try to enforce normal school discipline. Ironically the children of these teachers are in most cases enrolled in more affluent schools!

I do not have to have to provide the substantial evidence available to demonstrate how Sadtu has contributed significantly to the collapse of normal routine school operations in the poor areas of the Free State (which I am familiar with), the Eastern Cape and other regions. This is a political problem that can only be resolved by strong leadership from the ANC as the alliance leader. The real question is whether this is realistic given the leadership conflicts in the party, which are clearly stifling decision-making.

To a very large degree, our goal and mission of attaining social justice, transformation and the country’s economic development depends on how the education system functions.

An important but neglected area in our education system is early childhood development. Research has demonstrated that investing in preschool education, especially for disadvantaged kids, will result in better returns for society in the long term. This is the conclusion reached by a coalition of scientists, economists and experts who argue that the best way to strengthen a society, increase development and achieve social justice is to improve health, education and other services for its youngest citizens.

The apartheid racially-based education strategy made preferential investment in favour of the white community. This naturally constrained the abilities of the black population to improve its capabilities and compete equally and fairly in the labour market place. Our failure to achieve a radical turnaround in the performance of schools serving poor communities achieves the same results. Evidence of poorly educated and unemployable angry black youth is starring us in the face.

The case for change is urgent. It will need a serious change in the work ethic and dedication of teachers in the underperforming schools. The role of Sadtu in this effort is critical. Change will also require active citizenship through the school-governing boards. The department of basic education’s school district-support system will also need review to ensure it has strong and visionary leadership by dedicated people with proven expertise.


  • Thabang is a very experienced and leading strategy consultant with more than 20 years of executive management experience. His forte and focus as an organizational strategist concerns helping organisations develop vision aligned strategies and deal with repositioning challenges in changing market environments while maintaining a sustainable and competitive advantage. He is a graduate of the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. He has also completed the Harvard Senior Executive Programme.


  1. Ndizohlanza Ndizohlanza 18 August 2011

    Well argued. Perhaps the most valid point is: “In many areas, principals are members of Sadtu and they are under enormous pressure and intimidation when they try to enforce normal school discipline. Ironically the children of these teachers are in most cases enrolled in more affluent schools!” The problem is that many teachers are not professionals. They are there to earn as much as possible for doing as little as possible. The other problem is the crisis of values – where political influence, bullying, intimidation and corrosive solidarity that closes ranks to defend the worst behaviours and the worst people, whilst cutting down any form of individual achievement. It would require a radical change of mindset in the ruling elite before we see any improvement. Or a revolt by the parents of these kids who are being deprived of a decent education. If only the parents themselves insisted on a decent education BEFORE social grants or anything else….

  2. Shaman sans Frontieres Shaman sans Frontieres 18 August 2011

    Eloquent and succinct, and deeply disturbing. The facts have been known for some years but too many of those in the know have felt awkward about stating them loudly and clearly. We need strong, principled and visionary leadership and it simply does not exist.

    I am informed by people in the FET sector that 42% of young (mostly black) South Africans of between 18 and 25 are either unemployed, or unemployable, and NOT in any form of higher or further education and training. That is a staggering figure. And it trumps the figures from the Middle East despite the acknowledged social fact that a similar scenario in the Middle East has triggered the current regime-challenging uprisings. We are without doubt sitting on a situation that is a national crisis with dire implications for national security – over and above any economic and employment implications. But, despite this, COSATU remains in alliance with big government and SADTU continues its rapidly superannuating destructive path. God help SA!

  3. John Khani John Khani 19 August 2011

    These points are very well made. Yet, how can you expect a chief executive of our education system (that is, president Jacob Zuma) to recognize the shortcomings in our school system when he himself did not attend a formal school for more than a couple of years? It is entirely to be expected that he would have no clue what point this article is trying to make. It is the single most important problem we must confront as a society. Yet our foremost leaders are entirely unaware of its scope.

  4. Atlas Reader Atlas Reader 19 August 2011

    Well, when you choose schools as a “site of struggle” you’ve generated an entire struggle generation who experience all this “struggle” dysfunction and disruption as absolutely normal. It’s not some tap you can turn on and off to suit your own changed agenda. Sadtu people genuinely think their destructiveness is “democratic” and something to which they are perfectly entitled. For the teachers under 40 years old, it’s all they’ve ever known, unless they’ve worked in a former “white” school where few staff are Sadtu members and their old work-ethic has remained intact.

  5. Chris Roux Chris Roux 19 August 2011

    so is this now solidarity before education? Another generation to be sacrifed at the altar of black nationalism?

  6. Grant Walliser Grant Walliser 19 August 2011

    Great article. I think it highlights such a key point in South Africa right now – we need to start taking responsibility for our own future. Too many people expect too much from central government without being willing to commit to doing their part. If you are a teacher of previously disadvantaged children you should have an awareness of a higher purpose, a drive to empower these children for their future. This should supercede your impulse to strike and blame and not show up for work. These things should be a very last resort, not something you every few months.

    It is perhaps the greatest disappointment post 1994 is often the very people who suffered most under apartheid are the first to impose suffering on the new generation of people and especially children in their care through apathy and an unwillingness to work towards common purpose.

    There is no future in that.

  7. Tim Tim 19 August 2011

    Hear hear! Sad to say, SADTU seems to have very little interest in the well-being and education of the children. Principals and teachers are pressured to bow to SADTU’s demands, with the children being the ultimate losers, both now and in the long term.

  8. benzo benzo 19 August 2011

    “…..This is the conclusion reached by a coalition of scientists, economists and experts who argue that the best way to strengthen a society……..”

    Any reasonable thinking person could know that the decay started when Cosatu objected to the school inspection system. The system was largely abandoned and the teachers were given free reign to do as they like.

    The resulting non performance had very little to do with apartheid but plain lack of responsibility and dedication from a large portion of the teaching fraternity, guided by their union to object to anything that could be called “work”.

    The old struggle attitude: “liberation before education” is still the mentality with many of those. “Liberation” today is “the freedom to do what you want” and not taking orders from anyone.

    If any future government ever will ban unions to create a functional society, they will have themselves to blame.

  9. chris chris 19 August 2011

    Interesting article, thank you. I think the failure of our education system is the biggest tragedy of post apartheid South Africa, especially the problem of dropping standards in a world that is becoming more competitive and globalised. It is a potential timebomb which encourages opportunistic politicians to erode and remove our democracy. Only with a skilled and employed workforce will this country ever progress.

  10. nhlanhla nhlanhla 19 August 2011

    This is a lousy analysis from somebody making a living as a strategist.
    Let’s deal with facts first before we become evangelisitc on matters we have no understanding of. The author provides no evidence of SADTU being responssible for the perceived collapse of education in this country. He contradicts himself as he argues that some “principals are members of SADTU and they are under enormous pressure and intimidation when they try to enforce normal school discipline”. What hogwash, pressure and intimidation from who? I assume themselves as they are members of SADTU? Mr Motshohi, SADTU is a union representing and fighting for better working conditions of service. They have done well on that front as 2/3 of public service teachers have voluntary joined them. The question that South Africans should be asking themselves is how SADTU can be engaged to turn obvious potential of mobilising teachers for better conditions of service to be a partner in delivering quality education. However government cannot abdicate it responsibility of managing the delivery of service. That means ensuring that managers who are responsible for schools, districts, provinces are doing their jobs. Making SADTU a scapegoat for incompetent government officials and trying to blackmail them for their success in being the largest and influencial union is not a solution. It will also be important to also focus on addressing serious issues of disparities in this country where many of SADTU members find themselves serving those communities with limited support of the government and parents.

  11. My Capitan My Capitan 8 September 2011

    Its unfortunate that SADTU as an organisation used the terrain of education to fight for liberation and now that we are a democracy it is not using education to uplift the people. Thabo Mbeki once remarked that the conservative teacher organisations (read white) are more committed to professional development and the well being of the child than so called progressived teacher unions. This was evident in the quality of work output. I have been a SADTU member for the last 16 years and not once have i been invited by them to a workshop or training session on professional developement.

  12. Charmaine Charmaine 9 September 2011

    There are a myriad of technical processes implemented for change; a key part of this is real deep change management which enables the PEOPLE in these systems to implement. Whenever DBE changes a policy; or integrates new curriculum they have training in content (more likely orientation to the new criteria); but NOBODY seems to remember that the system can only work with people being empowered. This is true for SADTU as well; shifting them emotionally and pursuing an avenue of change management with real engagement with their fears and anger is the only way we are going to reach a place of engagement and partnership.

    Other unions dont have the same depth of anger and trauma and can thus rise above petty issues and focus on the learners; our SADTU compatriots are less likely to be able to deal with the culture of anger and emotions which they carry systemicallly for their constituents.

  13. Nicholas Nicholas 9 September 2011

    Rolling mass action begets rolling mass action and so does liberation before education beget more liberation before education… Atlas Reader is correct. A luta continua… it is not the educators who are the problem…assuming there is a problem. And anyway they are leaving the trade in droves and there are few new takers… so that problem will inevitably solve itself. Soon it will be time for the new paradigm. In the meantime.

    It is the kids and their parents [or absentee minders] who know that ill discipline and ongoing interference with education activities will bring down the system… It doesn’t serve them anything more than platitudes anyway, so they are probably right: it is an absurdity.

    The “struggle” is all they have ever known and let us not forget that it was successful.

  14. Peter Joffe Peter Joffe 10 September 2011

    Why single out schools? Trade unions have become the curse of South Africa as all they do is protect their members to the detriment of all else. Violence has become the best alternative to negotiation. “We will bring the country to its knees” is now the call. The jobless are excluded from the process as unions push wages up higher and higher for less and less work. “We DEMAND a living wage” say the workers but don’t care about all those who would love to have a job at even half that wage. The unemployed have become unemployable as the wages are too high and the draconian labour laws so bad that employers don’t employ because they face so many issues if the employee cannot or will not deliver. Market forces mean nothing in South Africa where have such a skew in the labour market. Over 50% of our people are unemployed or unemployable whilst, the new RICH (those with jobs and a wage) shout for more. Our constitution calls for equality for all and yet our labour laws and the trade unions call for the ENRICHMENT of the few. Schools become the pawn as unions use them to force their will on the unwilling. Trade unions have their place in society but as soon as they start to realise their strength and try to extract as much from society as they can, to the detriment of others, they own downfall must eventually follow. The world economy demands competitiveness but this is not possible with ever increasing costs.

  15. africa lover africa lover 11 September 2011

    Teachers’ union is a convenient scapegoat for the ills of education. It is about time that analysts go and avail themselves of the real conditions of schools attended by poor communities rather than pointing fingers. First and foremost, the alleged financial equalisation between schools is a myth – it goes for public funding but conveniently ignores parents’ contributions through fees and otherwiset. If you want to compare finance available per child in say Motshabelo and Bloemfontein schools please incorporate fees. And add an assessment of existing infrastructure as well of course as socio-economic and socio-cultural status, what support and information children have access to in their environment. Township teachers, who experience the lie of transformation everyday of their life, have become so desillusioned that they are less and less committed.
    But, I agree, money is not all.
    Education success has become premised on assimilation into western culture. Children from families where they have access to western knowledge, including language, are at a tremendous advantage. If you want to truly equalise chances, give full recognition to local knowledge and practices by making them part and parcel of the curriculum. Only when a pass in Zulu or Sotho etc is required for all, including white; when exam includes an oral part; when, say, stick fighting, hip girating or hair plaiting, are made valid options, can the system be seen as reasonably fair. Phambili nezilimi!

Leave a Reply