Hundreds of South African Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu) members picketed outside the plush headquarters of the department in Pretoria on Tuesday, singing and hoisting placards calling for Soobrayan's head. The union accuses Soobrayan of failure to implement collective agreements reached in the national bargaining council.
"Move Bobby, move!" the union's general secretary Mugwena Maluleke shouted from a loudhailer at the department's gate – teachers resoundingly echoed the sentiment. "Move!"
No one from the department addressed the Sadtu members and gates remained shut, manned by police officers and security guards.
After the picket, Maluleke told the Mail & Guardian that during the past four years that Soobrayan had been in his position he had only signed two agreements with unions, "both of which he's failed to implement".
The union said it "put the blame squarely on Soobrayan" over the department's failure to implement an agreement signed early last year to increase payment of exam markers. The union's latest gripe with Soobrayan stemmed from this longstanding dispute, the M&G reported in December.
Sadtu said the department agreed to hike markers' increments up by 100% at the Education Labour Relations Council in April 2011.
Errors in signing agreement
Soobrayan signed the agreement on behalf of the department, while Maluleke and Henry Hendricks signed for Sadtu and the National Professional Teachers' Organisation of South Africa (Naptosa) respectively.
But when the department had to implement the agreement with unions, it declared a dispute at the national chamber, alleges Sadtu. The dispute is yet to be resolved.
The union said the department claimed Soobrayan erred in signing the agreement as a reason for declaring dispute. "He allegedly signed the collective agreement without following proper internal processes [and] did not receive the necessary mandate from the minister of basic education and the minister of finance to bind the state into such an agreement with huge financial implications to the state," said the union.
Maluleke said the picket was only a first step in their campaign to have Soobrayan sacked. The department has seven days to show it is considering this demand, failure to which the union will move to "phase two", he said.
"During phase two our members will not support any programmes of the department at provincial level. We'll also begin to question the leadership of the minister."
The programmes that Sadtu threatens to boycott include department officials' meetings with principals and teacher training sessions, said Maluleke.
"They'll call principals to meetings but principals won't go. Our teachers will continue teaching, but they will not attend the department's curriculum development [sessions]."
With over 250 000 members, Sadtu is the largest teacher union in the country. "Phase two will unfold very soon. It will mean total shut-down of the department," said Maluleke.
Maluleke agreed this would have devastating impact on public education. "It will hurt education, no doubt. But what do you do when you are [dealing] with a department that doesn't deliver?"
"Our position is that the people who are disrupting [public] education are the basic education department. You can't have 153 learners in a class and call that better education."
Sadtu's threat to shun the department comes against the backdrop of the ANC's announcement that it wants teaching declared an essential service. The union, along with other teacher unions, is opposed to this plan.
The picketing teachers also highlighted issues plaguing public education. While other placards read: "Fire divisive and incompetent Bobby," others called for "develop[ment] of infrastructure" and "fir[ing] of all corrupt officials" in the department.
"We're also demanding the reinstatement of all temporary teachers across the country, especially in the Eastern Cape," said Maluleke.
Maluleke said the union blamed Soobrayan for problems that the department is seemingly unable to address. "He's so removed from realities of schools."