The escalation of problems affecting our schooling system has led the basic education department, the ANC and Cosatu to plead for "greater community involvement". We are told that education is not just the "government's problem" but "everyone's problem". As citizens we are exhorted to get involved in supporting our schools, teachers and school governing bodies. We are cautioned not to play the "blame game" but to "do our part" in supporting education, as Eastern Cape education MEC Mandla Makupula did recently on a national morning radio show.
These calls are made as if our schools system is an open and neutral environment in which ordinary citizens can simply insert themselves to "fix the problem". There is no taking into account the uncomfortable reality that many of our schools have become terrain for the advancement of political agendas by power holders in our local communities.
One of the complexities of this environment is the way in which the South African Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu) and its counterparts in our district and provincial education bureaucracies seem to be intricately and inextricably tied to each other by interests other than those of teaching. These political interests have transformed the role of the union from merely advancing the professional interests of teachers to being a dominant force in our local community politics.
If one looks more closely, it appears that the largest teacher union is in fact a very strong political player. Many of its members are active in local government as municipal councillors and others are moving on to provincial administration. Thus, ironically, one notes the ways in which Sadtu often acts as a career ladder for members who prefer to leave teaching and secure more lucrative employment in the state administration.
Unofficial political involvement
Outside of official meetings and public forums, frustrated teachers, administrators and politicians express concern about this "unofficial" political involvement of the union and perceive it as a counterproductive diversion from Sadtu's core role of deepening and invigorating professionalism in teaching.
Sadtu and the education department acknowledge this criticism, but insist it is the individual behaviour of "a few bad apples" rather than the union's organisational culture itself.
It is no secret that many people today use the ANC and its alliance partners as a channel for their own ambitions. This phenomenon has not left the education sector untouched. Sadtu represents teachers' professional rights, but at a personal and social level it also acts as an informal but powerful political network for ambitious individuals.
Teachers' political networks exist within a matrix of other elite social networks that extend into our district, provincial and national administration. Teachers, politicians and administrators tend to exist in the same circles; they are political allies in the broader ANC alliance, but also share social kinship as friends, relatives and community members.
The result of this convergence of political and professional networks is that, in our communities, a politically privileged class is gaining a "tight fist" of influence and power over what happens in our local state institutions, including schools.
A teacher, through his or her trade union affiliation, may end up having greater power to decide who becomes a local councillor or mayor because of his or her role in local political party structures.
The elite protects the elite
This power extends to matters of school governance and education administration and tends to undermine accountability in the education system. The elite protects the elite. One often senses a mutually beneficial conspiracy of silence between politically powerful teachers, who do not want to be held accountable for misconduct and lazy administrators, who abdicate their role in monitoring school performance.
In the worst cases, there are corrupt "tenderpreneurial" networks of politically connected teachers and administrators who collude to secure tenders in the department's supply chain.
In this context of unequal power relations between union-organised teachers on the one hand and poorly organised community members on the other, robust engagement on school reform is more often than not met by a hostile or cold reception. In some instances, schools welcome the participation of community members who bring additional skills and resources, but their participation in matters of key areas of transparency and governance is kept to a minimum.
In other words, the energy of the community is welcome, but probing questions are not.
Community participation in our school system is urgently needed, but the terms of engagement are structured in favour of those who are close to political power and against those who are not. Until this imbalance of power is corrected, the calls for greater community involvement will remain empty exhortations.
Nomalanga Mkhize is the co-ordinator of the non-governmental organisation Save Our Schools and Community in the Eastern Cape