Truant union leader ‘too sick’ to teach

Since Thobile Ntola was ousted from the teachers' union a year ago, he hasn't put in a day's work at the school where he is supposed to set an example as the headmaster. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

Since Thobile Ntola was ousted from the teachers' union a year ago, he hasn't put in a day's work at the school where he is supposed to set an example as the headmaster. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

More than a year after being booted out as president of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), Thobile Ntola has not put in a single day’s work at the Port Elizabeth high school where he is employed as principal.

Since his axing on May 19 last year on charges of corruption and bringing the union into disrepute, he has submitted sick notes to his workplace but has addressed workers at a string of meetings, alongside expelled Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and officials of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa).

Ntola is the convener of the South African Public Service Union (Sapsu), a union launched last year to challenge Sadtu and other anti-Vavi Cosatu public service affiliates.

Provincial government sources said he has handed in a series of sick notes, claiming to be suffering from depression.

The spokesperson for the Eastern Cape education department, Malibongwe Mtima, said Ntola was supposed to return to his teaching post after being fired from Sadtu; his secondment to the union by the department had fallen away because he was no longer an office bearer.

But Ntola failed to report for duty and only started submitting sick notes to the department in January.

No leave application
Mtima said the principal was supposed to go back to work at Chubekile High School in KwaZakhele township last week – but submitted a fifth sick note, booking him off until October 2.

“After Ntola was expelled from Sadtu, we wrote a letter to him, informing him of the termination of his secondment,” said Ntima.

“He is also supposed to apply for leave when he submits sick notes, but hasn’t done so. We’ve written to him, telling him to utilise HR [human resources] policies, and we’ll give him seven working days to respond. If he doesn’t respond, we’re going to adhere to our HR policy, which may result in withholding his salary.”

The Chubekile school governing body was livid that the school had been forced to cope without a principal for more than a year, said the body’s chairperson, Mandla Masusi.

Masusi said they had written to the provincial education department on numerous occasions, demanding that the MEC, Mandla Makupula, takes decisive action.

“I thought by now Ntola would have been back doing his job, which is what he’s paid to do. We want a principal that works, not one that’s always taking sick leave. This has gone on for far too long,” Masusi said.

Political conspiracy
Responding, Ntola said there was a political conspiracy against him. Scores of teachers have been off sick for up to two years and were never questioned about it, he said.

“The education department works closely with unions and whoever is being persecuted by unions, they actually follow the same example. It is like that everywhere in the country.

“This is politically motivated and there has always been a political agenda involved.

“Why is Ntola being chased for being sick only for a month while we have teachers who have been sick for years? Is Ntola not supposed to be sick? I am a teacher and not a doctor. I go to a doctor and a doctor tells me I am sick and can’t work,” he said.

AmaBhungane has come across media reports of at least five worker events Ntola has addressed or led since leaving Sadtu:

  • On May 30 last year, he addressed Sadtu members due to retire in Zwelitsha, near King William’s Town;
  • On November 5, he again addressed teachers in Zwelitsha;
  • On December 4, Ntola and other disgruntled former Sadtu leaders called a media briefing at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, at which they launched Sapsu;
  • On April 25 this year, he was at the Mdantsane Indoor Sport Centre outside East London, where he and Vavi addressed workers from 12 unions at a provincial shop stewards’ council; and
  • On May 1, he was among the leaders of a May Day march in Durban, with Vavi, Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim and Food and Allied Workers Union general secretary Katishi Masemola. Fawu is also part of the pro-Vavi faction in Cosatu.

He was seen in Vavi’s company at a union court case in Johannesburg earlier this year.

‘I am not mentally sick’
Asked to comment, Ntola did not deny being present at the events. As far as last year’s meetings are concerned, he said he had only discovered this year that he is no longer seconded to Sadtu.

His illness had only started this year, he added. “I am not mentally sick, so I can go and preach in church or attend an ANC meeting, where I can stay and address people when I am asked.”

He said he remembered being at the Mdantsane rally with Vavi, “but that was on a Saturday. My leave does not include Saturday and I am not quarantined in bed. The most important thing here is that I’m sick and there’s a doctor’s note proving that.

“Even now, I went to the school and submitted a sick note because applying for sick leave without a sick note would be pointless,” he said.

At last year’s Sapsu launch, Ntola punted his new “super-union” as the saviour of government workers. A Sapsu statement said that the aim was to form “a gigantic workers’-controlled union that is a dynamic, independent and nonaligned organisation of public service workers and related fields”.

“We must fight corruption, maladministration and nepotism, thereby ensuring that dedicated staff and managers are appointed and are in the right place to render quality service to members of the public, that they are happy and welcoming clients to their well-equipped and clean workplaces where they render service,” the statement said.

Sapsu not a ‘genuine trade union’
But the labour department’s registrar, Johan Crouse, said that Sapsu has been refused registration on three occasions on the grounds that “it is not deemed to be a genuine trade union as required by the Labour Relations Act”.

The first application was declined on January 21 last year. This was followed by further refusals on March 4 and 29 this year.

The Act states that a union cannot be registered with the department unless it proves that it is an association of employees whose principal purpose is to regulate relations between employees and employers.

In applying for registration, the applicant has to indicate the number of founding members with their places of work.

Ntola said he did not know the union is unregistered.

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