The scathing attack by the South African Democratic Teachers' Union on civil society organisations working in education, describing them as "imperialist neoliberal forces", is undemocratic and indicative of the siege mentality plaguing the tripartite alliance, analysts say.
The 250 000-member teacher union resolved at its national general council last weekend that a "stern warning should be [sent] to civil society organisations … that we will not accept a situation in which they are used as proxies to pursue certain political agendas".
Sadtu needs to "consistently sensitise society about the dangers of imperialist neoliberal forces masquerading as NGOs [non-governmental organisations] as these will only serve to erode the progress of the national democratic revolution".
Sakhela Buhlungu, sociology professor at the University of Pretoria, said the union's resolution had to be exposed for what it was — intolerance that went against democracy.
"The alliance sees itself as being under siege. They realise that there are lots of mistakes being made and that criticism by NGOs is actually quite damaging," said Buhlungu, who is the author of several books about politics and trade unions locally and in Africa, including a history of trade union federation Cosatu, published this year.
We need more voices
Now, more than ever, South Africa needs NGOs, he said. "We need every township and suburb to have not one but 10 NGOs. We need more voices, more noise pointing out incompetence and corruption in the government."
There has been a wave of litigation involving the basic education department this year and civil society organisations said they had been forced to take legal routes because of the government's inaction in the face of the crisis in education.
But Sadtu general secretary Mugwena Maluleke told the Mail & Guardian that the NGOs had a broader agenda — to undermine the government. "Some NGOs are working with other political parties and there will come a time when we will identify all of them. They are driving an agenda that education is a national crisis [and] using education to destroy the confidence of the public [in the government]."
Asked whether he thought there was an education crisis, Maluleke said: "We call it a challenge that is facing the country. We should be able to say 'these are challenges and we must contextualise the challenges. Did they begin in 1994 or before?' Why would we say the new government is the one that brought all these problems if we are dealing with a legacy from before 1994?
"Globally, there is an economic crisis which will, of course, impact on education and health."
He refused to say which organisations the union's resolution referred to, except one — Section27. The organisation took the basic education department to court twice this year over the non-delivery of textbooks in Limpopo.
"Their agenda is not of assisting us but to bash us. We can't work with Section27," Maluleke said.
He accused the organisation of "blaming us for contributing to the textbooks crisis" and claimed the union itself had alerted the provincial government last year to the impending crisis. Sadtu would release a list of other "problematic" NGOs in due course, he said.
Section27's director, Mark Heywood, said his organisation had sought to work with Sadtu and called on the union to "show evidence that we are anti-government".
"I'd like to see any evidence that Section27 is affiliated to or working on behalf of any political party, because we are completely independent of all political parties," he said.
The organisation's work was "solely dictated by the desire to allow poor children particularly to have a quality education".
Heywood said the statement was "in tune with the sabre-rattling against independent civil society that is coming from senior leaders, [SACP general secretary] Blade Nzimande in particular. [He has] made similar claims about civil society organisations [in terms of] neoliberal agendas and foreign funding … and tried to warn Cosatu's members off joint campaigns."
"Progressive, not reactionary"
Human rights lawyer Faranaaz Veriava said civil society's role had been "progressive, not reactionary" and Sadtu should be "working with it rather than launching an offensive".
Organisations such as Equal Education, the Legal Resources Centre, Section27 and the Centre for Child Law had responded "directly to a failing state in the face of an education crisis, 18 years into a constitutional democracy".
"Litigation is adversarial, but it is necessary in the current context of denialism and recalcitrance," Veriava said.