If Motshekga doesn't pay up she could be taking the bus home

Cars from the minister’s office have been attached to ensure the education department coughs up the R28-million it owes in teacher salaries. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Cars from the minister’s office have been attached to ensure the education department coughs up the R28-million it owes in teacher salaries. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

COMMENT

The sheriff attached vehicles from the office of Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga last week because she did not show the political will to ensure that thousands of teachers in the Eastern Cape were paid.

One would think paying teachers salaries and making sure there was a teacher in every classroom would be high on the list of priorities for national and provincial education departments yet this problem has dogged the courts for more than a decade.

It finally reached the desperate stage where lawyers thought it would be a good idea to show the department what it was like to not have the physical assets pupils need to learn and work.

Since 2012 the Centre for Child Law, represented by the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), has gone to court over the matter many times. This has resulted in numerous settlement agreements in which the department promised to fill posts, pay teachers’ salaries and, more recently, to pay back 32 schools the R28-million it has already spent on teachers’ salaries.

But the LRC knew better than to trust the department’s court-ordered word and it added a clause to the most recent settlement, which allowed it to attach the state’s assets to cover the schools’ debt.

Vehicles at the provincial education department’s offices were also attached.

“The goods that were attached to the value of [more than] R1.9-million include over 800 computers and seven departmental vehicles, including a Ford Ranger, Ford Focus, a Range Rover, a Toyota Corolla, two Audis and a Mercedes Benz, some of which are believed to be the vehicles used by the minister and her director general at the offices of the minister of education,” the LRC said in a press statement last week.

LRC regional director Sarah Sephton said the centre was forced to take this route “… because once again the provincial department failed to adhere to a court order that it had agreed to.
Even though the cars were not taken and only attached, it appeared to be the necessary tool to galvanise recalcitrant officials into action”.

On paper, the government does prioritise paying teachers’ salaries – most provinces spend at least 80% of their budgets on employee compensation – but there is something wrong with the budgeting in the Eastern Cape. Regularly, some ­official throws his hands up, saying the department has run out of money to pay all the ­teachers; just one of the reasons flung into the hornet’s nest of unpaid teachers and empty teacher posts in the Eastern Cape.

For years, whoever has been at the province’s education helm has failed to stick to the post-provisioning lists it sends out annually telling schools how many teacher posts it is going to pay for.

Not as easy as ABC
Although the department has committed to paying about 55 000 teachers, it does not have enough money to do this because it is paying the salaries of too many “double-parked” teachers in the province.

These are teachers who are working at schools where they are no longer needed because pupil numbers might have declined or subject choices by pupils have changed.

Surely they should move those teachers to schools where they are desperately needed? It’s not that simple because – faced with valid logistical problems such as district offices with no phones, computers or transport, matched by the same at many schools – this appears to be a task too big.

But incompetence and lack of will are still big players in this game and officials are swayed by the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) which is not going to let the department uproot teachers from their communities.

Fixing this is not an impossible task. All levels of the department need to be held accountable for not doing their jobs or reporting effectively why they can’t tackle the problem.

When the funds run dry
What does it mean for schools when funds dry up? The wealthier ones use school fees and their own funds to find teachers and pay them. The poorer schools pay teachers whatever they can whenever they can and sometimes use department-allocated funds intended for other things like paying cleaners. Or they don’t pay teachers at all. Or they don’t have teachers for every class.

Teachers borrow money from their neighbours, lose their cars and can’t afford to feed themselves. Pupils’ constitutionally protected right to a basic education is violated. And the Legal Resources Centre keeps fighting on behalf of unpaid teachers.

Marcia Seabela is one of these teachers. She teaches technology at Masiphatisane High School near Port Elizabeth. When the department failed to allocate the correct number of teachers to her school in 2010, Seabela was hired. The school pays her what it can from funds raised from local residents – R6 000 a month to teach seven classes in grade eight and four classes in grade nine. Each class has about 50 pupils.

If the 28-year-old received a salary from the department it would be about R16 000, Seabela told the Mail & Guardian. She has an honours degree in education from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

The principal’s numerous letters to the department about Seabela have been fruitless. He is told that, according to the department’s lists, there are no vacancies at the school so Seabela cannot be formally employed by the department – a statement echoed by departmental spokesperson Loyiso Pulumani. He also said “nor was her name ever put forward for consideration” for official employment.

But Seabela says departmental officials must “just come to my school and see how much they need me. The department is wrong”.

“I’m so frustrated. I’m not coping with the money I’m getting. I borrow money from people. I am the breadwinner for my parents who are not working and my two brothers who are at university.”

Of the money owed to those 32 schools, the LRC says all but R1.5-million has been paid back. The basic education department’s spokesperson, Elijah Mhlanga, told the M&G on Tuesday that all the money had been paid back and the “matter has been resolved”.

But the department is facing another huge debt. The LRC is spearheading a class action. So far 90 schools, which have been paying stipends to teachers that should have been receiving a salary from the department, have opted in and their joint debt amounts to about R81-million. The department has until October 30 to interrogate the schools’ proof of these payments when the matter is due to be heard in court again. “But to date the department has not bothered to answer this multimillion-rand claim and file answering papers,” Sephton said.

That court matter might be close to resolution but the ongoing overall problem continues and neither the national or provincial departments responded to my question about what they were doing about this.

If the situation is going to change the province needs to make sure its staff and offices have adequate resources, root out alleged collusion with Sadtu, and take disciplinary action against incompetence.

Motshekga needs to negotiate meaningfully or take action against provincial officials and the teachers’ union. That will involve taking political risks, perhaps making enemies, and compromising her political future.

But if someone attaching your car is not a clear enough message that the time for that action has arrived, then nothing ever will be.

Victoria John

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. Read more from Victoria John

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