At least two teacher unions in KwaZulu-Natal say the provincial department of education is “in crisis” and that its project to distribute sanitary towels to pupils smacks of corruption.
The unions are hoping that a forensic investigation by the national department of basic education will get to the bottom of the sanitary towels saga and will also clean up the provincial department.
The provincial education department has come under fire from the National Teachers’ Union (Natu) and the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) for its sanitary towel programme in schools.
The department was lauded last year when it announced that it would be distributing sanitary towels to needy pupils. Some schoolgirls had been reported to be missing school because they could not afford pads.
However, the unions have questioned whether the project was above board as there is now an oversupply of the sanitary towels — resulting in them piling up in staffrooms and principals’ offices — and some are distributed to schools that have no need for them.
“It has been mainly the lack of space to store these towels which has forced many teachers to give sanitary towels to all learners, including those in grades R and one,” said Natu’s deputy president, Allan Thompson.
“It is therefore small wonder that some boys are seen using some of these sanitary towels as bandages or shin guards when they are playing soccer and other games.”
Natu has also claimed that the sanitary towels are not certified by the South African Bureau of Standards.
When the programme started, it had a budget of R20‑million and was meant to benefit 900 000 pupils in poor schools, but the budget went up to R109‑million this year.
The KwaZulu-Natal education department justified this by saying there was an “increasing need”, but this appears to be contradicted by the state of oversupply.
Following the allegations, provincial education MEC Mthandeni Dlungwana said the department would launch a probe into the project.
But speaking to the Mail & Guardian this week, the KwaZulu-Natal secretary of Sadtu, Nomarashiya Caluza, said that an investigation conducted by the department into itself would have no credibility.
Caluza said there were serious issues preventing the province from providing quality education and teaching and that the department’s “excuse” had been lack of funds.
“As far as we know, there is no budget for sanitary towels. Where did they find that money? And how is that a priority when there are other issues that are critical? Nothing is going right in the department; nothing is going right,” she said.
After Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga met Natu officials last month, she said there were “extremely serious concerns” and “anomalies” taking place in the department that the union had raised. She was due to meet a provincial Sadtu delegation this week.
Elijah Mhlanga, spokesperson for the national education department, said Motshekga was treating the concerns as urgent and had decided to conduct a forensic probe into the sanitary towel allegations.
“She has been dropping everything and travelling to KwaZulu-Natal because that’s how serious this issue is,” said Mhlanga.
Other issues raised by the unions include:
• The need to fill vacant posts in district offices and at the head office;
• The hiring of more teachers;
• Schools not receiving their funding in time;
• Teachers going on prolonged sick leave; and
• Grade R teachers who have not received a salary increase.
Caluza said that last year, for the first time in the province, schools did not receive their funds in time and that this had crippled teaching and learning. She said some teachers and principals had used money out of their own pockets to run schools.
“Schools did not have money to do copies for internal exams; other schools did not have electricity. They were failing to pay their water bills, such that many schools had their water and electricity cut off by the municipality,” said Caluza.
She said the same problems resurfaced at schools in the province at the beginning of this year. In January, many schools opened without enough teachers because the department had terminated the contracts of about 2 000 temporary and substitute teachers in December.
“As we speak, there are schools without teachers … It [the department] terminated even the contracts of teachers who are standing in for teachers that are still on maternity leave or those that are substitutes for teachers who have been on prolonged sick leave,” Caluza said.
“You can’t have people being on sick leave for six to 15 years.”
“We have been complaining about that because it is wasteful expenditure in our view,” she said.
Caluza said that some teachers who had been “at home for 10 years” were being paid bonuses, yet substitute teachers — who have “for six years or 10 years [been] standing in for these people that are on long sick leave” — were fired.
The unions said part of the problem was the department’s inability to fill critical positions such as that of chief financial officer, which has been vacant for seven months.
They claim that there are about 2 000 vacant posts at district offices and at the head office in the province.
Both unions also want the department to improve the salary of grade R teachers, who are paid about R6 500 without any benefits. Natu has threatened that, if the issue is not attended to by next month, grade R teachers will down tools in protest.
Provincial education spokesperson Muzi Mahlambi refuted claims that some schools had not received their allocations. He also said the issue of vacant posts affected all departments in the province due to cost-cutting, and that schools that had requested educators had received them.
But Mahlambi failed to respond to other questions about sanitary towels, grade R teachers and teachers on prolonged sick leave.
Thompson said the situation is so dire in KwaZulu-Natal that Natu has called for the national department of basic education to place its provincial counterpart under administration.
Mhlanga said Motshekga was in talks with other departments, including the treasury, to deploy a high-level multidisciplinary team that would focus on the allegations about human resources, financial mismanagement and maladministration.
It would also investigate alleged misdemeanours related to the governance, funding and resourcing of public schools in the province.
Mhlanga said the team would advise Motshekga on whether it would be necessary to conduct a broader forensic investigation.