Though the union's priority is teachers' working conditions, it cannot ignore wider issues.
The South African Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu) has always taken a keen interest in broader societal issues beyond the classroom – and unapologetically so.
Our core function has always been to advance and protect the rights of teachers and this includes ensuring that their work conditions are favourable. The fact that the union has grown in two decades from 6 000 members to more than 255 000 members is a vote of confidence from those we serve.
But in the South African context, the trade-union movement has always been intimately and without inhibition involved in the broader sociopolitico discourse.
The predemocratic dispensation did not give organised labour much of a choice but to roll back its sleeves and get involved in the daily community struggles for a country that it envisaged as captured in the Freedom Charter. Our collective reality, however, is that there remain pressing challenges that go to the very fibre of our society.
It is widely accepted that the school environment is a microcosm of the community and teachers will be the first to tell you that, more often than not, they are confronted with pupil issues that have their origins outside of the classroom.
It would thus be disingenuous and shortsighted in the extreme for Sadtu not to use its organisational capabilities to positively influence the communities within which it works.
Yet, in a Mail & Guardian article two weeks ago ("School corridors of power", November 9 to 15), the author laments what she claims to be political interests that seem "to have transformed the role of the union from merely advancing the professional interests of teachers to being a dominant force in our local community politics".
This rather ill-informed assertion is oblivious to the fact that the union has not only survived, but also thrived in the past two decades because it prioritises its members for the good of the whole. Our understanding is that conducive work conditions are a critical ingredient of the improved pupil outcomes the country desperately needs.
Undercompensated and undertrained
We have always insisted that no child should be subjected to a demoralised, undercompensated and undertrained teacher because it may rob him or her of the constitutionally guaranteed right to a quality education.
It is precisely for this reason that we launched our Curtis Nkondo Professional and Development Institute, which is having positive results and continues to fight for the betterment of our members' conditions of service.
We can therefore confidently dismiss the "transformation of the union" that the author of the M&G article laments as a perception rather than a reality.
We can also state that our involvement in the local community is not by default, but by design.
In other words, we have deliberate plans on how we intend to work with local community civic organisations and other progressive formations to drive the change that we want to see in society and consequently in our schools.
It is against this background that we were central to the conceptualisation of the basic education department's quality learning and teaching campaign, which aims to elevate education to a societal concern.
We believe that the well-documented challenges that have contaminated the sector can be effectively mitigated through well-co-ordinated, inclusive strategies.
There is more than enough scientific evidence, for instance, to suggest that increased parental involvement can drastically improve pupil outcomes.
Sadtu has resolved in recent constitutional gatherings that well-trained and adequately skilled school governing bodies and school-management teams are critical to the improvement of schools. Such inputs to the education system can be speedily obtained through the structured involvement of community members.
We are firmly opposed to corruption within the public service because it goes against everything we stand for ideologically.
It is our view that corrupt activities within the education sector in particular take away the right of the African working-class child to a quality education.
We have gone as far as advocating that the basic education department ban tenders completely and rather establish a state-owned company to deal with pupil and teacher-support materials, among others.
Being the largest teacher union in the country, Sadtu should not therefore be perceived as the big "red" elephant in the room and as an obstacle to improved pupil outcomes, but as an intricate part of the solution.
Contrary to what the author of the M&G article believes, we welcome and strongly encourage community involvement in our schools.
Although we regret isolated incidents that give the impression that the union is antagonistic to such community involvement, we want to make it clear that we are not obstructing, but are right at the forefront of the quality learning and teaching campaign.
Mugwena Maluleke is general secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers Union