‘Little union lords’ costing education

Another week, another education study that suggests how the country’s largest teacher union cripples the wellbeing of South Africa’s learners.

We report elsewhere this week on the study. Its subject is not the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), but it does not mince its words about the union’s contribution to the wretched teaching that leads inevitably to appalling academic performance and to the blighting of thousands of young lives.

Sadtu’s membership comprises about two-thirds of the country’s 390 000 teachers, so when it sneezes 12-million schoolchildren are at risk of infection. But by what right does the union hold their health to ransom?

When Sadtu bullishly keeps on holding union meetings during teaching time, referring with its bloody-minded dogmatism to “rights”, it is time to ask (again) whether those rights supersede the interests of South Africa’s youth.

When it implicitly condones its members’ misconduct — whether loafing in the staff room instead of teaching, or preying on the young people they should be nurturing — the question of whose rights should prevail becomes acute.

It also becomes a political question, one that comes into clear focus if we read this week’s education study in conjunction with last month’s hard-hitting report from Trevor Manuel’s National Planning Commission. Both reports lead to our question for government: Do you have the courage to take on this union?

Manuel’s report went in search of reasons for its blunt finding that “the education system has failed to ensure that equalised public spending on schooling translates into improved education for poor black children”.

Those last five words should ring a bell for Sadtu — it was the union’s own passion at its formation. But, bulking large among the reasons Manuel’s commission found were teacher absenteeism, union action (including holding meetings during school time) and the difficulty of dismissing teachers charged even with “extreme misconduct” — all of which this week’s study finds as well.

That the plain speaking in Manuel’s report comes from a commission situated in the presidency might be grounds for optimism. For it is not evidence we any longer need to show up Sadtu’s unhelpful role in turning around an apartheid-ravaged education system; it is political courage.

It will take nerve to tell these “little union lords”, in sociologist Sakhela Buhlungu’s apt phrase, either to rediscover the idealism that fuelled the union’s birth 21 years ago or find other jobs. Can government do it?

Crack the whip, Mr President
Thuli Madonsela emerged this week from efforts by sections of the police and the justice department to dig up dirt on her past and from some inept reporting on their plans, stronger than ever — at least for now.

The biggest beasts in the political jungle have been forced to clear her of conflict of interest allegations and, rather implausibly, to declare that there never was an investigation of any kind.

Inoculated for now against attempts to stymie her investigations into high-level corruption by damaging her own reputation for probity, Madonsela has laid down a direct challenge to President Jacob Zuma.

He ought, she says, to consider action against the minister of public works, Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde, whose actions in shepherding through leases for police premises that were patently designed to rip off the fiscus were “improper”.

Acknowledging that she cannot tell him what to do, Madonsela said she hoped Zuma would “do the right thing”.

This is more than a call for moral and political leadership.

Roux Shabangu, the man who stood to benefit handsomely from the leases, has recently started denying he is a friend of the president. Make of that what you will.

This much is clear: when Mahlangu-Nkabinde’s predecessor, Geoff Doidge, began to take seriously the public works officials who were asking uncomfortable questions about the leases, he was swiftly relieved of his Cabinet post and shipped off to sunny Sri Lanka as ambassador. That was Zuma’s call. And in its wake the officials were threatened and punished too.

Put simply, Madonsela’s investigation makes it clear that General Bheki Cele must bear considerable responsibility, but choices made in the Union buildings may have been at least as important in securing illegitimate profits for Shabangu.

Can Zuma act against Mahlangu-Nkabinde without acknowledging his own apparent complicity?

Can he act against Cele and risk further alienating a power broker who is openly spoken of in ANC circles as a leading figure in the KwaZulu-Natal faction opposed to a second term for the president?

To keep them both would be classic Zuma — friends close, enemies closer, balance of power maintained, justice and public opinion be damned.

To fire just one would be hugely risky.

But to fire both would balance out the political pain, enhance Zuma’s ­tattered leadership credentials and protect him from claims that he is looking after Mahlangu-Nkabinde because she was doing his bidding.

How about it, Mr President?

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