Blade fights for control of Seta 'spaza shops'
Blade Nzimande has serial legal battles to fight if he is to secure his recent radical overhaul of the skills sector. But many trade unionists and educationists are solidly behind him on the need to shake up the sector.
This week the Labour Court ruled that the higher education and training minister had exceeded his powers in terms of the Skills Development Act by radically changing the constitution that dictates who controls the Services Seta (sector education and training authority). The new constitution is supposed to govern all the other 20 Setas.
He would move urgently to amend the legislation, his department said this week. He faces a further Labour Court action over the R1-billion he transferred from the bank account of the same Seta that inflicted Tuesday’s stinging legal defeat on him.
At the heart of the legal warfare between the Services Seta and Nzimande is control of the state’s multibillion-rand skills development machinery. Nzimande will appeal against the Labour Court’s judgment.
Ivor Blumenthal, the Seta’s chief executive, found himself suspended and marched from his office two weeks ago when the new management, appointed in terms of Nzimande’s fresh constitution, took over the Seta. The amended constitution “places the entire Services Seta in the minister’s hands”, Blumenthal said.
“Organised business and labour are completely stripped of their authority. The private sector - namely organised business by way of business associations and organised labour by way of trade unions, and professional collective associations - has governed every aspect of the Services Seta on behalf of our 180 000 members for the past decade.”
The Labour Court’s Judge Annelie Basson noted the unusual mixture of applicants in the matter. “The court is faced with the extraordinary situation where significant representatives of [business] and representatives of organised labour have united as applicants to contest the validity of various actions by the minister,” she said in her judgment.
But this outcome is a “temporary setback”, the higher education and training department said in a statement on Wednesday. In addition to appealing against the judgment, Nzimande would “urgently undertake comprehensive legislative changes to ensure more effective oversight of government over the Setas”, the statement said.
In a further legal move the Services Seta, and nine other applicants, filed an urgent application in the Labour Court on Wednesday to retrieve the R1-billion that it argues Nzimande unlawfully transferred two weeks ago from its bank account to the National Skills Fund.
The application asks the court to order Nzimande to “take all necessary measures immediately to ensure the re-transfer of all funds”. Education activists and unions generally support Nzimande’s aims in overhauling the Setas, but question his methods and his department’s capabilities.
“He had good intentions,” said independent education activist Sheri Hamilton. “But the way he’s gone about it is not correct. He should have brought people on board through consultation and not approached them in an authoritarian manner.”
One unionist who asked not to be named said: “The minister understands exactly what has to be done, but he has surrounded himself with fools. This is going to lead him into making a balls-up over and over again.” Seta managements do need to be scrutinised, said Suraya Jawoodeen, deputy general secretary of Cosatu affiliate Nehawu.
“No one should be resisting change if it’s about streamlining and downsizing,” she said. “We can’t have CEOs and boards of Setas personalising them and running them like their own spaza shops.”
Jawoodeen said Setas “need to be streamlined. They are cumbersome and expensive and many are chaotically managed and do not fulfil their mandate.” Gwebs Qonde, acting director general of Nzimande’s department, said the other 20 Setas are on board.
“They’ve fully cooperated and all signed the new constitution,” he told the Mail & Guardian. “The Setas can’t be allowed to keep rolling out short-term skills training that continues to produce cheap labour—which especially means black people.
“The way some Setas have operated has generated a huge industry of private providers of training that’s excessively expensive and merely reproduces a system of cheap labour.”
—Additional reporting by Amanda Strydom