Schools unite to fix salary snarl-ups

“This might have bad repercussions for me, but I am desperate enough to talk to you. I speak nothing but the truth. About 80 of my pupils don’t have a teacher in front of them for their economics and other subjects … The teacher has gone to a province where he will actually be paid a salary,” principal Sizo Butshingi of Isolomzi Senior Secondary School in rural Eastern Cape told the Mail & Guardian.

When the department makes them wait too long, schools such as Isolomzi in Nceleze village, 60km out of Butterworth, pay teachers whatever the school’s governing body can manage.

“It is children’s right to be given an education and that right will be infringed if there is no teacher in front of them. We couldn’t leave them without a teacher, and that teacher must get something,” Butshingi said.

The teacher was appointed to his position in 2012 but did not receive a single month’s salary, Butshingi said. For 18 months he survived on “handouts” that the governing body gave him, which, until he left the school out of frustration in the middle of last year, amounted to R84 000.

‘There is no way’
“We couldn’t ask the parents to help pay for him. There is no way. They are the poorest of the poor. There are no jobs.

“These people live off old people’s social grants and some of our children are from child-headed households. We were forced to use money meant for other things, like sports, to pay him,” Butshingi said.

Isolomzi is among the 90 schools that have joined a class action suit against the provincial education department to recoup some R81‑million in teachers’ salaries for which they have had to foot the bill.

Butshingi, like the other principals, views this step as a “last resort” after “countless” letters, emails, phone calls and meetings with departmental officials left their schools with no answers and a debt they simply could not hold anymore.

The schools will join 32 others that are applicants in a case represented by the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) that was launched in November.

An agreement
The LRC and the Eastern Cape education department, which was one of the respondents, settled that case out of court on March 21: the department agreed to a plan to address the schools’ request for temporary teachers to be made permanent or replaced by surplus teachers from other schools. It also agreed to pay back the R25-million the schools themselves had to raise for salaries.

On the same day, the court certified this class action, which meant that schools in the province facing the same problem could also apply to join the class action and be reimbursed the money owed to them for teachers’ salaries. The schools were directed to file proof of how much they had spent on teachers. This proof and a notice of motion were filed last week Monday at the high court in Grahamstown.

The department now has until July 31, when the matter is due to be heard in court again, to interrogate this proof and file answering papers.

“R81-million is a massive amount of money … you just can’t believe that it’s got to this,” Paul Glover, the governing body chairperson at Collegiate Girls’ High School, told the M&G.

No replacements
He said when teachers left the Port Elizabeth school for various reasons, such as retirement, the department simply did not replace them. This has been going on for three years.

“Four or five teachers will be retiring over the next 18 months, which means we will have to fill and pay for about nine posts … we just can’t afford that.”

Until now the school has been increasing the school fees to be able to afford this, which has “brought us to a point where some parents are defaulting on fees”.

Aubrey Williams, principal and governing body member of Rowallan Park Primary School, also in Port Elizabeth, said he has been a principal for 19 years – “and I can tell you, we’ve tried everything to get our teachers paid”.

Paying for the departments mistakes
“For the last five years we have been paying up to 11 teachers and parents have spent more than R3‑million on this. It’s very unfair. I’m a father and a grandfather … the parents are paying for the department’s mistakes.”

Glover described the situation as a “disaster”. “If schools like Collegiate and other ex-Model C schools are struggling financially because of this, then can you imagine how no-fee schools in poor areas feel?”

Even if the court does rule that the department pays schools back what they have spent, he said, “there have been judgments against it in the past and it promptly ignored them, so who’s to say it won’t do that again?”

The potential for that is not something the LRC’s regional director, Sarah Sephton, will accept.

“We will ensure that the order is upheld, even if it takes years … and if the department does not pay, we will sell its assets.”

A decade-long problem
Sephton has been at the forefront of legal action over this decade-old problem, one that was caused in part by the department’s failure to move “excess” teachers from schools where they are not needed to fill vacant posts at other schools.

Sephton said that, according to departmental data, there are about 57 000 teachers in the province, of which about 5 000 are in excess. There are about 3 000 vacant posts.

In schools that could not afford to pay teachers out of their own coffers, she said: “The vacancies caused such a dramatic shortage that some educators had to teach a classroom of 100 learners, which is taxing on the teachers and detrimental to the quality of education provided to the learners.”

The case has broken ground for class action litigation in South Africa.

Previously, applicants could just launch a class action, but in 2011 the Constitutional Court decided that applicants would need to get class actions certified before they were open to anyone to opt in.

This means that applicants would need to prove “that the matter involves definition of the class, identification of some common claim or issue, existence of a valid cause of action, suitable representative of the class, and that class action is the appropriate procedure”, said Sephton.

The Eastern Cape education department had not responded to the M&G’s request for comment by the time of going to press.

Authorities ‘fail’ teachers who do their work
Unathi Mtsolongo is a 33-year-old teacher who, after not receiving a salary from the education department for a year and a half, left Isolomzi Senior Secondary School in June last year.

“They didn’t pay me once … The principal tried many times to make them [the department] aware that I’m even working there,” he says. He says he was expecting to be paid a R15 000 monthly salary by the department. When this did not happen, the school governing body stepped in and gave him R4 000 a month. It paid for rent and groceries for him and his wife, but as the main breadwinner for his entire immediate family, “it was not enough”. 

After he had finished school, Mtsolongo got a Funza Lushaka bursary, studying to be a teacher at the University of Fort Hare. “I finished in 2011. I was a good student. I wanted to be a teacher because I wanted to go back to the rural areas and help the pupils there. I couldn’t forget what it was like going to a school in Idutywa where the teachers didn’t take care of us because teachers don’t want to be in the rural areas. The roads are bad; it’s hard to access resources for the schools.”

But Mtsolongo loved teaching at Isolomzi. “I was good at my job. I was demotivated because of the money thing but I kept on going. I was there every day.” He taught economics, accounting, business studies and English for grades 10 to 12. 

“Yo-o-oh, I enjoyed it a lot. It hurt to leave that school. We were building something – something like a former Model C school. Parents [from other villages] were willing to send their kids there because we produced results.” 

When he left, his pupils begged him to stay, he says. “They cried; they begged me to stay until after their exams.” 

He now works at a school in the Free State where he earns R15 000 a month, and he recently bought a car, a 2012 Volkswagen Polo. 

“I feel better. I am able to do things for our home now, but my wife is still in the Eastern Cape and this is bad for us.” 

The Eastern Cape education department is “failing” its teachers and failing its pupils, he says. “Don’t talk about young-blood teachers not being willing to teach. They are willing. They are there. The department is the stumbling block to learning.”

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Victoria John
Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011.

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