Sadtu’s protest over marker payments is just the labour facet of a far wider political battle.
As the South African Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu) escalated its industrial action this week, it emerged that implacable distrust within the union about the controversial role in schoolbook tenders of Bobby Soobrayan — the director general of the department of basic education — is powering the protests, which are already damaging grade 12 pupils' matric preparations.
The dispute over payment for matric markers, which the union has routinely cited in its hunt for the heads of Soobrayan and Education Minister Angie Motshekga, was the labour facet of a deeper campaign, union leaders said this week.
Sadtu's Limpopo secretary, Matome Raphasha, said Soobrayan's trustworthiness regarding tenders was questionable and the issue had become acutely worrying in the light of the ANC's plans to centralise textbook procurement processes in Pretoria.
"Bobby must go before that process is implemented so that people who are not corrupt can run it," Raphasha said. "We don't want him to be involved."
Another provincial leader, who asked not to be named, said: "The real target is Soobrayan, not the minister. We are turning up the heat on her because she is failing to show leadership. "If Soobrayan were to be axed, I promise you, we'd stop calling for Motshekga's resignation."
Thabo Sematle, Sadtu's deputy secretary in the North West, said: "There is prima facie evidence that there was nepotism in the awarding of certain tenders by [Soobrayan's] office. But the minister has never acted against him."
Motshekga told Parliament in August that "procurement currently happens at provincial level ... In regard to procuring centrally at a national level, the [department] has already done the initial work."
The party's support
Echoing this, the ANC resolved at its Mangaung conference in December that the "government [should] adopt a centralised approach to the procurement of learner-teacher support material", which includes textbooks.
Sadtu's general secretary, Mugwena Maluleke, distanced himself from claims that the calls for Soobrayan's sacking were specifically linked to these plans. But Maluleke said the director general's track record meant he could not be "trusted" with processes such as government's Section 100 interventions in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape. And Soobrayan's backtracking on the 2011 agreement with Sadtu on payments for matric markers remained the chief reason for the union's six-week-long work-to-rule action.
This week, the action escalated to countrywide pickets and the union plans to march on Parliament and the Union Buildings next week.
The call for Motshekga to resign is rooted in her unwillingness to act against Soobrayan and it was not political, Maluleke said. "We're not corresponding with any political party [for intervention], not even the ANC. This is purely a labour matter."
But the ANC Youth League in Gauteng, which this week strongly criticised Sadtu for the impact its rolling mass action would have on pupils, accused the union of pursuing a "political strike".
Ayanda Kasa-Ntsobi, its secretary, said: "If you are calling for the resignation of a minister, you are entering political terrain because she was deployed by the ANC. You can't say that is not political."
Sadtu's campaign was a "labour issue with political overtones", said political analyst Somadoda Fikeni. "I don't think it would admit it if it was being political, but we do know that when unions take political stances, they make it appear as if they are dealing with labour issues."
The National Union of Mineworkers has urged the ANC to intervene in the impasse. "The ANC must engage Sadtu. This must not be allowed to continue," said spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka.
Asked whether the ANC would intervene in the impasse, the party's secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, said: "It's not your business whether we're intervening or not."
In contrast with Motshekga's declaration last week that she was "comfortable" with Sadtu members working a seven-hour day, teachers trying to prepare grade 12s for matric expressed serious concern.
"If we do not give extra classes, you're looking at learners learning just 50% of the curriculum," said Ntokozo Dube, a teacher in Pinetown, KwaZulu-Natal. "They won't be ready for their exams."
Teaching for only seven hours a day "in schools like ours that are not well resourced is not enough to make a child pass their grade", said Dube.
A technology curriculum adviser in Mpumalanga who asked not to be named said: "This disengagement [by Sadtu members] affects the support teachers are supposed to receive from us. At this time of the year, we need to do moderation of work they have covered ... We are not able to zoom into schools and monitor underperformance."
Soobrayan did not reply to the emailed questions he asked the Mail & Guardian to send. Departmental spokesperson Panyaza Lesufi also did not respond to the M&G's requests for comment.