Mugwena Maluleke, general secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers' Union, says that striking gets things done.
Why don't you want teaching to be declared an essential service?
It is not a solution to our problems, which are multifaceted. Declaring teaching an essential service is just elevating one problem, the strikes —as if the strikes are the [only things] that disrupt education.
[The ANC's plan] is unlawful and unconstitutional ... Making teaching an essential service would also hamper our efforts to deal with corruption and non-delivery because once the government knows that teachers cannot go on strike then service delivery will not be attended to. I mean, now every time we want to get something [done] we threaten a strike, not even go on strike.
The last strike where teachers were on their own was in 1997. [Since then] there have been public sector strikes where the teachers [joined other] public servants. The right to strike has got to be defended because that is the only way to protect the interests of workers.
But South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) members have disrupted classes to protect individual, not collective, interests. For example, in Gauteng teachers recently left classes to call for the reinstatement of leaders facing disciplinary charges.
We issued a warning to the people who did that. We condemned that action and maintained that we've got to follow the rule of law ... The provincial executive committee of Sadtu in Gauteng suspended the entire regional committee for taking teachers out of classes. For that matter, [the strike] was unprotected.
You've spoken about "real irritations" that should be addressed. What are they?
The proposal of the ANC … should be: "Let's declare certain areas as priority." It should be saying: "Let's ensure there's no class in a public school exceeding 40 pupils" — 153 pupils in a class is an irritation, is a disruption of education. It's a real irritation to have classrooms that have no teaching resources. You put children in so-called mobile classes, where it's so hot. And teachers sit with qualifications that have not been realigned with the curriculum.
The minister is busy with self-congratulating and praise-singing, and says teachers are not confused about the curriculum. Oh no? Go and ask the teachers. They will tell you that they are still confused by the curriculum because, since 1998, they have not been trained; there are no resources.
[The minister] says grade R is a foundation to education but … the so-called [grade R] practitioners still earn R1 000. The poor teachers come straight from school. They've had to educate themselves. You can't build a foundation in that way. What damage are you doing to the mind of that child? In Limpopo, children still learn under the trees, in the Eastern Cape they still learn in mud schools. Almost 70% of the schools in the country don't have libraries and laboratories.
Non-governmental organisations have addressed these "irritations" in their campaigns. Why has Sadtu not showed support for them?
We joined some of the Equal Education marches. [But] we did a political assessment [that concluded that] we are not fighting for the same thing. We are fighting for a long-term solution and others [non-governmental organisations] are fighting for a political space, to ensure that they expose the government before [the] 2014 [elections].
So we decided we can't be seen with the others because their fight is not genuine, as far as we are concerned. I know you are going to ask, "Where is the proof of that?" But we know; we have that information.We look at the non-governmental organisations … who their funders are. When I analyse their funders, politically, I find it irritating. The people who are in Equal Education are also in Section27. You cannot separate them. I can tell you, the top leadership of Section27 is the top leadership of Equal Education.
But Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of Cosatu, has publicly and recently supported Equal Education and Section27.
I don't want to talk about him. We have had our issues. We clashed with Equal Education when it accused Sadtu of not doing anything about the [Limpopo] textbooks. They went public [in a statement accusing Sadtu of failing to take its share of the responsibility]. We can't be partnering with them. It was an unwarranted attack, after Sadtu has done so much …
Sadtu is not seen to be championing the battle against difficulties that its own members teach under, such as poor infrastructure.
There are certain issues that we're fighting that you don't know about. We fight, but we're not able to declare disputes. When we take the department to court arguing that pupils don't have teachers, it is not known, it's not reported. When we fix roofs in schools we call the media [and] they say that is not news. The work that we're doing is not being seen. We're doing a lot of work to fight these irritations.
Is it merely a perception that Sadtu does not take action against its disruptive members?
The department has a right to discipline people who decide to disrupt classes. We only have a right to represent because that member is entitled to representation. We need to clarify those roles because often we get beaten and bashed because of the lack of leadership by the department; [the failure] to take action where they are supposed to ... It's an individual who decides: "I'm not going to teach." It's not an organisation.
How does Sadtu plan to oppose making teaching an essential service during a pre-election year in which delivery will be a top ANC priority?
The ANC will not be successful, let me tell you. Legally speaking, they will not be able to do this. We will declare a dispute at the [United Nations'] International Labour Organisation, which will rule it unlawful. The Constitution is based on international law ... The organisation would have the last say in dealing with this.
Why do you think the ANC is proposing this?
I don't have the reasons because we don't have a complete resolution … except that there are irritations that the ruling party has observed. Those irritations are incidental. They are not day-to-day problems. [They are about] these wildcat strikes like the one in the East Rand [last year]. I think that's what is irritating the ruling party. Even if you can declare it an essential service, how are you going to clean my mind? [We] need training and psychosocial support for teachers damaged by the system that has de-professionalised their profession.
Interest arbitration may be a better option
The legal path to making teaching an essential service might be smoother than the plan’s opponents think, but there may be an easier way to serve the interests of both teachers and education.
“The proposal does push the boundaries of the concept of essential services beyond what the international norm is for such services — but that norm is not actually rigid,” said Chris Todd, who is a director at Bowman Gilfillan law firm and specialises in labour law.
“If there is the kind of crisis in education that most stakeholders seem to accept, then it is possible that you could extend the notion of teaching as an essential service without any breach of the law or the Constitution,” he said. “It is a nuanced question and one which can legitimately be debated.”
But Todd said that analysts, unions and the ANC should rather be considering the alternative to strikes: interest arbitration.
“You sign an agreement that says, when you reach deadlock in wage negotiation then, rather than striking, you submit the argument to properly qualified, independent arbitrators,” said Todd. “They will reasonably take into consideration factors such as affordability, comparability and the public interest in attracting quality teachers and the parties are bound by law to the arbitrators’ conclusion.”
He said this is an internationally recognised approach used to resolve public sector disputes in critical parts of society.
Meanwhile, the firestorm ignited by the ANC’s proposal escalated when the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union accused the party of making a serious miscalculation by announcing the plan publicly before consulting partners within the alliance.
“The funny thing is that opposition to this has emanated from within the alliance,” said Sizwe Pamla, the union’s spokesperson.
“There’s ambiguity over whether the party’s national executive committee meant we should declare education as an essential service only in approach or impose legislation,” Pamla said. “This is why we need to sit down soon and talk.”
ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, accused in reports this week of backtracking on the proposal, could not comment when contacted on Thursday. “I’m in the mountains; I can’t talk,” he said.
But Cosatu-affiliated unions have a “clear stance”, Pamla said: “It won’t help declaring education an essential service. Health is an essential service, but that hasn’t changed anything. We wake up every day with the same challenges [of working conditions and poor remuneration].”