Sadtu’s Darkening Horizon

These are not salad days for the SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), largest teacher union and one of the bigger groupings within Cosatu, the federation that is now primarily a representative of public sector workers. The return on taxpayer investment in basic education in improving school-leaver knowledge, doesn’t match this being SA’s largest single public expenditure item and black parents, educationists and media are losing patience with an overly politicised teacher corps increasing blamed for stalling progress.

The shift away from appeasing Sadtu is being led by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga and her DG Bobby Soobrayan, who have faced down Sadtu in the Eastern Cape by taking over control of education (normally a provincial function) in that worst of South African teaching provinces. Limpopo, scene of last year’s textbook delivery debacle (another provincial job), has also been taken over by central government, and President Jacob Zuma announced to the ANC’s Mangaung conference in December a forthcoming return of school inspectors – against Sadtu’s wishes. Now Motshekga plans to table before Cabinet a report calling for teacher appointments and promotions to be based on merit and competency, a direct threat to the union.

Sensing a changing wind, Sadtu has mobilised, insisting that Motshekga and Soobrayan be fired for a textbook distribution failure that isn’t theirs, but no doubt because these two seem little beholden to unionised teachers. They have little chance of success, and may have even more to worry about if a pupil strike against Sadtu politicisation in remote Ingwavuma portends anything.

Ingwavuma is a peri-rural backwater of KwaZulu-Natal below SA’s borders with Swaziland and Mozambique. There, a school began organically for very young children in a house 20 years ago. As children progressed through the grades, it became known as Nansindlela (“This is the way” in Zulu), run by local parents and teachers who left formal state employ.

With discipline and devoted teachers, the nascent school flourished, attracting donated equipment from Christian groups abroad, British “gap year” students helping to teach, buildings funded by Nedbank, Anglo American and other corporates, Eskom providing electricity, and “fields” provided by the local roads department.

Self-run but absorbed into the public system, government paid half the multi-racial teaching cohort, the others hired through R100 monthly school fees. In 2004, Nansindlela, graduated its first matric cohort while boasting the top provincial choir, along with sports such as cricket, athletics, netball and soccer. This ground-up school would become the top performing of its district for eight straight years, hitting a regular pass rate of up to 98%.

Enter Sadtu in the form of a Sowetan Level 1 teacher , Linda Skhonyana, posted to Nansindlela in 2002, where he is alleged to have begun a “thatha zonke” campaign to rid the school of white teachers. It was no easy ride, with internal school hearings finding him guilty of various misconducts including theft and unauthorised absences to attend Sadtu gatherings. But with the school governing board (SGB) failing to get departmental back-up, Skhonyana remained.

More than that, he managed a coup – packing an SGB election with friends and being elected principal. Discipline faltered, corporate support dried up, white teachers left, and truly bad luck fell upon Skhonyana. Just this year, he forgot, three times, to place school fees collected into the school strong room. Three times they were stolen. Three times no break-in signs could be found.

Part-time teachers went unpaid or saw their salaries fall from R5 000 a month to R1 000. Discord in the teacher corps followed and last year’s matric results showed a 12 percentage point fall. Now the matric class of 2013 have rebelled, locking their principal out and demanding his replacement.

Backed by a community parent committee, they want new SGB elections, new investigations into missing funds, the axing of non-teachers they claim are on payroll, and the like. Says student spokesman Rolihlahla Mzimela, “The principal is mostly away from school, attending union and political meetings for up to a week at a time, yet leaving no proper delegation of duty at the school”.

A provincial departmental investigation, due to last a week, is now taking two, as 19 student and parent grievances are pored over. Skhonyana, who has declined to comment for this article, is on leave for the duration, and pupils are back in class after their peaceful action.

Whatever transpires, it may be that from faraway Ingwavuma the message of a road ahead without politicised teaching is being shown. It isn’t good news for Sadtu.

– Paul Pereira