The ANC's aggressive stance on teaching as an essential service bodes ill for three-year wage agreements reached in the public sector last year.
It came to a head this week, with ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe using phrases like "number-one priority" and "no stone unturned", but the idea of making teaching an essential service was floated within government, and the ANC, some time ago.
The national development plan, which is being treated as the centre point of government policy, effectively suggests that teacher unions must be stripped of their power. A ministerial review of science and technology bluntly suggested outlawing strikes by teachers. That review incidentally was set up under Naledi Pandor, former minister of education, who will take the lead on its implementation for the ANC. The idea found at least some support among parents and pushing it would help rehabilitate the image of an administration still held liable for the textbook fiasco.
Of course, 2013 would be a good year to show a commitment to education – for both the ANC and the government – as during the course of this year the basic education department will face more legal action and likely more scandals too.
But declaring teaching an essential service is not a battle the ANC is likely to win.
On Tuesday the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) argued that such a declaration would be unconstitutional, and if the matter ever did reach the Constitutional Court, it would have every prospect of seeing that view endorsed from the bench.
The court has shown a great deal of care in balancing constitutional rights by considering the practical rather than the theoretical. It could be argued that children are disadvantaged when teaching is interrupted to the detriment of society as a whole. The practical counter-argument is that a lack of books, facilities and, in the case of the Northern Cape, action against parents blocking schooling represents far more real problems, with an impact far exceeding the loss of teaching days to organised industrial action.
Reshaping the discussion
It is an argument the South African Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu) would love to make before the court and before the public. Having suffered from a serious image problem in recent years, the union has been working hard to reshape the discussion and it has been succeeding. Not that long ago all the ills of education were laid at the door of lazy, incompetent, unaccountable teachers almost as a matter of reflex. But the education department's disinterested approach to minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure and buck-passing on responsibility for textbook distribution has changed that.
"We have said many a times that problems confronting education are systematic and multifaceted," Sadtu said in a statement on Monday. "Targeting one component in the system which is the teachers will therefore not solve the problem. Problems confronting education need to be dealt with in a holistic manner."
In 2010 many would have interpreted that as yet another attempt by the union to avoid blame properly apportioned to its members. This week it drew more than a modicum of agreement. Given the time it would take to create the regulation to ban teacher strikes, Sadtu could conceivably harden that into a more pointed message: the ANC is trying to cover up its inability to provide children with decent education; don't let them.
Public opinion notwithstanding, Sadtu, Cosatu and related parties can count on the unwavering support of the majority of public-service unions, unions that have a proven ability to extort double-digit wage increases from a government they have shown they can bring to their knees.
Attempts to keep unionisation out of the defence force has already put public-service bargaining groups somewhat on edge, and in private discussions around teachers are already tinged with a sense of dangerous precedent. If teaching is vital to the running of the country, categorised with services such as emergency healthcare and policing, could the same not be said for the issuing of ID books or the administration of grants? Is there, in fact, any government service that could then be said to be non-essential?
Allowing themselves to be culled from the herd one by one is not a happy prospect for these unions – not in an era where Cosatu complains that it has a seat at the tripartite table but is ignored when it speaks and not when they have thought it necessary to strike more often than not to achieve wage settlements.
Then there is Cosatu itself, a formation that knows many of its constituents would prefer honest confrontation with the ANC rather than an alliance so often in disagreement on policy, which watched in horror the growth of a more militant flavour of union epitomised by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union. On e-tolls Cosatu could swallow defeat, but allowing Sadtu to be neutered would be crippling to the union federation.
You could almost say the ANC was daring government unions to flex their muscle to the maximum and throw out the multi-year settlements reached after fraught and long-winded negotiations not quite six months ago.