Schools controlled by the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) are best understood in terms of what they are, namely crèches or daycare facilities, rather than in relation to what they are not — education institutions.
Some commentators, such as Jonathan Jansen, the outgoing rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, have hinted at this; as early as 2013 he referred to properties owned by the basic education department as “those buildings called schools”, implying that they cannot be seen as proper schools.
But most educationists analyse the South African basic education system based on what it should be doing — teaching children — and therefore arrive at conclusions such as “it is in a state of crisis” or “it is dysfunctional”.
For the past four years at least, the reasons for this so-called crisis or apparent dysfunction have been identified as poor management and leadership, incompetent and underperforming teachers, inadequate infrastructure, and so on.
Yet, year in and year out, the crisis is sustained and the dysfunction continues uninterrupted.
Over the past few months we have seen a raft of data and some useful new academic insights that render the analytic lens of “what ought to be” more and more opaque, and encourage us rather to describe and understand “what is”.
I will attempt to join the dots between the recent texts, both by showing just how far away schools currently are from what they supposedly ought to be and by shedding light on what they, in fact, are.
In recent years, the minister of basic education, Angie Motshekga, when releasing the annual matric results, has attempted to convince the nation that the schooling system offers equal opportunities to all children, black and white, poor and rich.
Yet, in answer to a parliamentary question in April 2016, Motshekga disclosed information that refutes her own claim.
In 2013, seven out of 10 matriculants in quintile one schools passed their final examinations to obtain a national senior certificate, but last year only six out of 10 candidates in these schools passed.
By contrast, in quintile five schools, nine out of 10 matriculants consistently passed their examinations in this period.
Quintile one schools are the poorest no-fee schools, whereas quintile five schools are better resourced and charge fees.
Shockingly, whereas the gap in performance between quintile one and five schools grew from 20% to 30% nationwide over the past two years, in the Eastern Cape it doubled from 23% to 45% during this period.
Let me be explicit: although 19 out of 20 pupils in quintile five schools in the Eastern Cape passed their matric examinations last year, only 10 out of 20 candidates in quintile one schools in the province passed.
Inequality in educational outcomes within the system is massive and is increasing rapidly.
A recently released report commissioned by the Zenex Foundation shows how the current matric inequalities have their origins in foundation-phase classrooms across the country. That report establishes that the grade four results in the annual national assessments (ANAs) “mirror those in grade 12 [matric] remarkably closely”.
It also shows that, “already by grade two, more than half of students in quintiles one to four are not on track, highlighting how few students are acquiring basic skills in foundation phase”.
Schools that don’t educate
By and large, therefore, quintile one (no-fee) schools produce negligible educational outcomes: at grade four level, just over 20% of learners pass their ANA tests, more than 50% of learners drop out of school before grade 12 and only about 5% of the original grade one cohort exits 12 years later with a bachelor-level national senior certificate.
To be explicit, these schools cater exclusively for poor black learners and they are uniformly under Sadtu control. They are places we may refer to as schools, but they certainly do not educate those who attend them.
In April, the nation was forced to take note of the long-term consequences of the declining educational outcomes in no-fee schools with the release of a Statistics South Africa report showing that youth unemployment increased from 34.2% to 35.9% between 2009 and 2014.
This report built on the findings of an earlier Stats SA report, which showed that the proportion of young black Africans (aged 25 to 34) in skilled employment actually dropped between 1994 and 2014.
Both reports confirm the direct relation in the contemporary South African economy between the level of education and employment.
So, the probable consequences of attending a Sadtu-controlled quintile one school in South Africa are long-term unemployment, poverty and dependence on state welfare.
The release of the “jobs for cash” report (authored by a ministerial task team chaired by John Volmink) was delayed and contested because of its explosive findings. Motshekga should be commended for having had the political courage to release it.
The report found that the basic education department “has retained semblances of managerial and administrative control in three of South Africa’s nine provinces … In all other provinces, Sadtu is in de facto control.” As a result of its power in the education system, the teachers’ union has what the task team calls “undue influence … in offices, in schools, unions and everywhere else”.
Unsurprisingly, this has led to certain instances of what can be regarded as extreme abuse, such as the “selling” of posts.
But more generically and endemically, cadre deployment has “weakened the education system because people without the requisite skills, abilities and commitment now serve in key areas”.
Put another way, many district officials, principals and teachers do not have the abilities required of them to be effective in their respective roles.
Consequently, as another recently released report, authored by members of the socioeconomic policy research unit at Stellenbosch University, points out, undue Sadtu influence has enabled the union to block policies aimed at enforcing much-needed accountability within the education system.
Hence, Jansen is quite correct to describe the teaching profession as “the biggest job-protection racket in South Africa”.
This understanding points to a first insight into what South African schools actually are — they are sites that enable the dispensing of state patronage to the members of Sadtu.
Mechanics of state power
The institutional mechanics described above explain how quintile one schools are prevented from developing into places of teaching and learning, but they do not explain why this is the case.
A timely book release earlier this year was Roger Southall’s The New Black Middle Class in South Africa. Following in the footsteps of the likes of Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani, Southall argues that 1994 constituted only a partial break from the apartheid past.
“The nature of the negotiated settlement,” he writes, “was that, while the ANC was enabled to gain control of the state after winning the first democratic election, the overwhelming weight of economic power was retained … in the hands of the white elite that owned and controlled large corporations.”
Consequently, Southall maintains, after 1994 the broad strategy of the ANC was “to capture state power”. Class formation over the past 20 years is thus understood within the context of the interplay between state and corporate power.
Key mechanisms of state power have been cadre deployment, equity employment (affirmative action) and black economic empowerment (BEE). Over the past two decades, the ANC has been successful in reconfiguring the racial composition of government and the public service, but it has had limited impact on corporate power.
The extent of these mixed outcomes is clearly reflected in the changing composition of trade union federation Cosatu’s membership. In 1991, only 7% of Cosatu members were in public-sector unions, but by 2010 public-sector unionists made up 39% of Cosatu’s membership base.
With the expulsion of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa from Cosatu in November 2014, public-sector unionists are now — for the first time — in the majority in the federation. The largest union in Cosatu today is Sadtu, with about 250 000 members.
The core membership of the ANC is made up of those who have benefited directly from patronage-based state power — state employees, winners of state tenders and beneficiaries of BEE deals.
An implication of this is that it is unrealistic to expect the ANC to discipline or sanction Sadtu because that union’s membership is simultaneously part of the party’s loyal core.
Michael Kahn (an adviser to the late Kader Asmal, who served as minister of education from 1999 to 2004) has recently drawn attention to the role of Sadtu members “as party commissars who deliver the votes at election time”.
In this regard, he highlights several factors that make schools ideal for the purposes of mobilising political support (such as their telecommunications infrastructure, dispersed placement across the South African landscape, and so on).
Here is the second function of South African schools — they are stable sites of the party-state that are fundamental to the delivery of resounding election victories.
Third, those places we call schools should be understood as being crucial to the South African welfare state. Across the length and breadth of the country, millions of poor black children are looked after every weekday of every school term and given a daily meal, free of charge.
They are kept safe in their respective daycare facilities, from 8am to 2.30pm every day, and then return home with a full stomach. Their parents are struggling to survive and battling to feed their children.
Quintile one schools therefore provide an essential welfare service.
The key relation in South African politics today is between the ANC’s million or so beneficiaries of patronage (such as teachers) and the tens of millions who benefit from state welfare.
For how much longer will the former be able to convince the latter to “be grateful for small mercies” and consequently to continue giving their vote to the ruling party?
The nation will have a partial answer to this question after the local government elections in August.
Ashley Westaway is the manager of Gadra Education in Grahamstown.