A force for or against good?

Tom Stokes, MPP

DA KZN Spokesperson on Education


The latest threatened strike and disruptive actions by SADTU once again raise the question on whether the South African schools can ever recover while Sadtu dominates the system.

Increasingly, the actions of Sadtu have shown that its agenda is not directed primarily at improving conditions of service for its members but to establish itself as the most powerful player in what is the most highly politicized education terrain in the world.  A statement by a Sadtu member that “Sishi (the present KZN HOD of education) must leave like the previous HODs who forget that Sadtu can hire and fire” indicates the attitude of Sadtu’s relatively low-ranking office bearers, who believe they have unfettered power to hold the 100 000 strong education department employees to ransom and prejudice the 2.5 million learners in the province in the process.

And they do have this power.

Last Wednesday in the Imbali township, on the doorstep of Pietermaritzburg, school was brought to an abrupt halt as instructions were issued to teachers by their “shop stewards” to down tools and attend a Womens’ Day celebration. There is nothing in any collective bargaining agreement that allows them to do this, and it flies in the face of the President’s instruction that “teachers must be in class, on time, teaching”.

Despite the illegality of their actions, despite their defiance of the President’s instructions ordinary teachers have assumed the power to step over constraints that the rest of us have to obey. They are able to do this because the people entrusted to deliver a service to our people –  a service paid for by our taxes and agreed upon in our parliaments under our constitution – have failed to show the political will to enforce normal conditions of employment constraints. How is it possible that crucial Trial Examinations in Pietermaritzburg can be disrupted because the Exams Section goes on a “work to rule” (read “go slow”) campaign so that these exam papers are not timeously prepared for the learners? Surely if consistent disciplinary action was taken against these culprits and all those that have gone before them, a far more efficient and successful education department would have evolved.

Twenty years after the ANC assumed power, the education administration is far worse off.  This is because the locus of power has slipped from the MEC and the HOD down to teacher staffrooms.

One must also question why ordinary teachers obey the instructions from Sadtu when they are clearly at odds with their responsibility to the children under their care. How do teachers simply down tools and walk out of a school, careless of what will happen to their charges? On the surface it would appear that teaching is no longer a child centered occupation but a teacher centered one. Perhaps the rapid growth in our school population (one of our success stories) has given rise to a new breed of teacher, who, employed to take on this pupil explosion, often under trying circumstances, has been so overwhelmed by these challenges that they have lost sight of the huge responsibility they have to the individual child in front of them.

Whatever the root causes of the lack of professionalism and responsibility of these striking teachers, the present scenario will simply not bring about the improvements we seek in our schools. Clearly the power of teacher unions needs to be severely restricted, either through declaring teaching an essential service or through a revision of the collective bargaining agreements so that the civil liberties of parents and learners are not over-ridden by the rights of teachers as is currently the case.

Until this happens teacher unions will be accused of being a destructive force undermining the evolution of our emerging democracy rather than a force of good.

Tom Stokes is the Democratic Alliance KZN Spokesperson on Education and a member of the province’s Education portfolio committee.   He holds a Masters Degree in Education and is the former Deputy Principal of a leading boys’ school in the province.