Government cadre deployment and corruption subverts education

The basic education ministerial task team, charged with investigating media reports about posts being bought and sold, unearthed other corrupt practices in the appointment of teachers and officials. 

Interviewees painted a picture of practices that do not involve only the exchange of money, cows or goats but also manipulation at every stage of the appointments process to ensure that certain candidates are awarded with desired positions. 

Despite the focus on financial and other irregular transactions — which the task team’s forensic members are still investigating with a view to prosecution and disciplinary action — the task team found itself contemplating a bleak landscape of manifold forms of malpractice that are inimical to the appointment of educators and officers on the basis of professional merit, quality of work and appropriateness of experience and qualification. 

Eventually the task team came to understand that a major source of this corrupt environment is the fraught relationship between teacher unions and the department. 

The task team had to conclude that the schooling system in six of the nine provinces has been captured by members of one union, the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu). This conclusion was based on statements by senior political and managerial figures in the provinces. Sadtu has become the ultimate authority over the management of schooling, the appointment of senior officials and school principals, as well as of district and circuit managers. For this reason, it was inevitable that most of the task team’s attention was on Sadtu’s role and influence.

But before one jumps to an entirely negative conclusion about Sadtu’s behaviour, it must be recognised that the department, through its weakness and passivity, has allowed this to happen. The practice of cadre deployment by the unions and the effects of political subservience are among the many causes of this. 

When the ANC took power in 1994, it deployed its cadres to the public service to ensure that civil servants would carry out the democratically elected government’s policies.  But, 25 years of government cadre deployment, which Sadtu is openly determined to continue, appears to have degenerated into patronage or else a means of capturing parts of the education system. 

The task team sees this as dangerous and corrupt, and one probable cause of the poor performance of our schooling system. 

On the other hand, Sadtu sectors have argued that, because of the training that it gives to its members, they are most often the best qualified for the jobs to which they are deployed and appointed. 

Many serious issues faced the task team in the course of its investigation. One was the nature and roles of teacher unions in the present situation. 

Each union is different and their style and manners are varied, as are their approaches to their role.

Sadtu regards its teacher and manager members as workers, and has elected to behave as an adversarial industrial union. As such, it is a member of trade union federation Cosatu, and is also an ally of the ANC. This enhances its power and influence.

And so the question must be asked: What benefit is such power and influence for schooling? The task team took note of what has happened in Mexico when one teacher union allied itself to a powerful political party and how that relationship has led to profound corruption.

When matters related to Sadtu were raised during the task team’s interviews, many interviewees, including some senior figures, seemed unable to mention Sadtu by name, and referred to it as “the most powerful union” and “the elephant in the room”.

There is no doubt that in some circles Sadtu is feared and that its influence has led to unwillingness by officials and managers to oppose or challenge it.

Research in KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape, which was considered by the task team, confirms the deleterious effects of militancy that Sadtu in some cases demands from teachers. 

The task team observed that Sadtu is not a monolith: it is too big to be so. For example, the union is split in some provinces and one of its senior leaders has two armed bodyguards.

For reasons such as this, the assurances by Sadtu that it is not involved as an organisation in the buying and selling of posts does not necessarily apply to all dimensions and sectors of that union. 

Of concern to the task team was the extent to which unions and managers attributed major problems in the appointment of educators to the school governing bodies. Everyone except the representatives of the Suid Afrikaanse Onderwysunie was eager to stress the governing bodies’ shortcomings and to recommend a variety of changes to make them more effective. 

These comments and suggestions would have been more persuasive had the union representatives in the provinces and the district managers been open about their own difficulties, shortcomings and challenges. 

Instead, the managers said, although they were mainly unaware of problems with appointments, the power to recommend educators for promotion posts should be taken away from the governing bodies and given to the department. 

The task team was not persuaded that this would reduce malpractices.

The governing bodies were instituted with noble intent in 1994 and it is true that in some areas the parent members of these bodies are unacquainted with professional aspects of posts or with the intricacies of school management. 

But this fourth tier of democracy in South Africa should not be tampered with lightly. The irony is that those critical of the governing bodies have been doing far less than they should to support and develop them.

The governing bodies have the potential to be bridges between, and play valuable roles in schools and communities. 

My view is that the task team recommendation that the powers of governing bodies be curtailed should be reconsidered. And I recommend a careful study of the 2003 report — School Governance in South African Public Schools, chaired by Professor Crain Soudien — to the then minister of basic education. Unlike the task team’s report, it was never released. 

The task team has been assured that the 16 recommendations it has made will be taken seriously by the department. 

As difficult as it is in an environment in which corruption is endemic and in a system of education that suffers from major mistakes in the recent past, it is possible for schooling to offer young people alternatives to corrupt practices and the grasping of short-term advantages. This is one reason the task team has recommended that the philosophy underpinning education be reviewed by the unions, teachers, academics, activists and others. 

The task team has been encouraged by the bravery of the minister to confront some painful and awkward issues in the report. 

This has not been an exercise of indictment, blame or moralising about the shortcomings of others. It is not helpful to be self-righteous in matters of such importance. We hope the unions, regardless of the many problems they have identified in the report, will be willing to engage with the issues raised with equal courage. 

Michael Gardiner is a former local education researcher and a member of the basic education ministerial task team.

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