The country's biggest teacher union denies South Africa has the highest teacher-absenteeism rate in the Southern African Development Community region.
The South African Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu) this week denied teacher absenteeism in public schools was as high as Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga has claimed.
Mugwena Maluleke, Sadtu's secretary general, accused Motshekga of deliberately misleading the public when she told journalists in Parliament last week that teachers were absent for a national average of 19 days a year.
Motshekga told Parliament that South Africa had the highest teacher- absenteeism rate in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region. However, Sadtu said that the real average in South Africa was only eight days a teacher, a year.
Maluleke cited the 2007 Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality (SACMEQ III) study, the same study on which Motshekga based her figure. Contrary to Motshekga's "misinformed assertion", said Maluleke, South Africa and Swaziland were placed at number three out of 15 countries in the region, with a teacher-absenteeism rate of eight days a year. The best performing country was Mauritius, where teachers were absent for an average of six days, followed by Mozambique with seven days.
Maluleke said the SACMEQ III report showed the only year the average for South African teacher absenteeism was 19 days a year was when there was a national strike in 2010.
"In fact we're below the average of the SADC region. We're refuting that South African teacher absenteeism is the highest," Maluleke told the Mail & Guardian.
"What she's doing is to justify why she wants biometric machines in schools," Maluleke said.
Motshekga is planning to install fingerprint machines in schools to monitor teachers' attendance. Refuting claims by unions that the machines would unnecessarily police teachers and deprofessionalise them, Motshekga told Parliament last week that the system was meant to make teachers accountable.
Sadtu said it would mount a campaign to force Motshekga and Bobby Soobrayan, the director general in her department, to resign for reneging on an agreement that they would raise wages for matric examination markers by 100%.
Another union also rejected the absenteeism statistics. Allan Thompson, executive director of the KwaZulu-Natal-based National Teachers' Union, told the M&G that reports about teacher absenteeism should not be taken at face value.
"If we generalise we're not going to solve any problems," he said. "We want the minister to say that in such and such district or school we have this problem of the number of teachers being absent on any given day. We should also be told how many of them were charged. The department should have such information because principals collate it."
In KwaZulu-Natal, a teacher might be absent from school for one day a year, Thompson said. This was because teachers also needed to attend to personal matters such as "going to your child's school when you've been called".
"[Teacher absenteeism] is not as high as people are claiming it to be," he said.
On a large scale
Education experts told the M&G that truancy was a large-scale problem. "The scale of the absenteeism problem in South Africa is serious and certainly needs to be addressed," said Ingrid Sapire, a mathematics research specialist at the University of the Witwatersrand.
"It is a huge cause for concern because clearly teachers who are not at school fall behind and so do their pupils. The thing is that being at school does not mean that teaching is happening. So the situation may be even worse than the absenteeism statistics show," she added.
Sapire said school management teams should be empowered to ensure accountability. These teams are internal school structures led by principals and comprised of teachers. "I really am not sure that the biometric system will manage the more pervasive problems of teachers who are at school but not teaching, or teachers who would clock in but then leave the school premises if they are not being held accountable by their management team," she said.
Political analyst Somadoda Fikeni said that Sadtu's new drive to confront Motshekga indicated that the union was emboldened by recent developments, including the government's backtracking on its resolve to declare teaching an essential service.