/ 21 April 2005

‘I pay them annually’

A Magaliesburg African National Congress councillor who started an independent school for underprivileged children is embroiled in a protracted legal battle after he allegedly failed to pay his teachers’ salaries.

In May this year, the Teacher reported on Cornelius Cloete’s Magaliesburg Group of Schools, which has 275 learners. The 12 teachers currently employed at the school live on the Cloete’s farm, where the school is situated, and are employed for salaries of R800 per month. Cloete and his wife are foster parents to 40 learners who live on the premises.

Former teachers claim Cloete owes them R82 000 in unpaid salaries and have instructed a lawyer, Mike Smuts, to take legal action to get their money.

Smuts has issued a summons against Cloete, who is disputing the number of teachers he owes and the amount he owes them. One of the claimants is the widow of a teacher who worked for Cloete. Cloete’s lawyer says he has no legal obligation to pay her monies that are owed to her late husband.

Smuts claims 11 teachers were owed outstanding salaries dating back to 1999. In January 1999, Cloete admitted they were owed money and undertook to pay them. The undertaking was made in the presence of Cloete’s lawyer and officials from the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE). Cloete began paying the teachers, but payments stopped again in December 2001.

The teachers attempted to bring a claim against Cloete at the Council for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, but the Department of Labour said it was unable to assist.

According to Antoinette Meyer, who worked as both teacher and principal at the school for two years until 1999, Cloete receives a government subsidy for his school. ‘He promised to pay me as soon as he received money from the government but he never did until I resigned,” she says.

‘I was only paid for a while, then the money gradually lessened and then he stopped paying me altogether.” Meyer claimed most teachers were ‘afraid” to fight for the money owed to them, especially those who are foreigners and live on Cloete’s farm with no alternative accommodation.

Cloete admitted to owing teachers money but denied that he is refusing to pay them. ‘I am wondering why Mike Smuts did not also tell you that I pay them annually,” he said. ‘The government took away our subsidy because they said we are a private school, not rural.”

Cloete said his subsidy had been reduced by 25%. ‘Let’s say it costs the government R100 per student; they will give me R60.” He claimed he was using his own money to keep the school going, but could not specify how much he was spending because, ‘everything is interrelated – the school, the village – they are all interrelated.”

He claimed Meyer was trying ‘to close down the school. Some of the teachers she claims to be representing do not even know about nor want anything to do with this”. He says his attorney has a sworn statement from one of the claimants, withdrawing from the case.

‘I will not close down and that is my closing statement,” he shouted before slamming the phone down, ending the interview with the Teacher.

Cloete is defending the action instituted against him. In a letter dated May 3 2002, his attorney Raymond Vermooten says the school is no longer owned or controlled by Cloete, but by a non-profitable trust. This was a requirement of the GDE so that the school could qualify for a subsidy.

‘In his personal capacity, [Cloete] earns a small salary as a councillor. He had for some time and still is experiencing serious financial difficulties and is unable to make any meaningful offer based on monthly payments,” Vermooten wrote.

‘However, the trust which controls the school is indebted to [Cloete] and has undertaken to pay R20 000 a month to him … when it receives the subsidies from the GDE.”

But Vermooten goes on to say the monthly payments will be made in ‘quarterly instalments” of R5 000 each and that he would then pay the teachers. Vermooten said Cloete was expecting the first R5 000 in June this year.

‘Our client has asked us to emphasise that he has no intention of avoiding his obligations and that, given sufficient time, he has all intentions of meeting them. His financial position has, however, simply not allowed him to make any payments.”

The GDE confirmed that there is a legal battle against Cloete. Rural School Education Development Project Coordinator in Gauteng, Shaeda Dadabhay, said the GDE assisted in a meeting held in 1999 at which Cloete undertook to pay the teachers when he received the subsidy. She also confirmed the school received a government subsidy, but said she did not know the exact amount.