Teacher unions know their power — and how to use it

This week teacher unions called for the closure of schools until after the Covid-19 infection rate had peaked. 

The South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) came out first on Tuesday afternoon and said its national executive committee had decided at a special meeting that schools should close immediately and that there had not been effective teaching and learning since schools opened last month. 

On Tuesday evening, enter the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa (Naptosa), the second biggest teacher union. It also called for schools to close until the infection rate curve flattens. Naptosa said keeping schools open was irresponsible and was having a negative effect on the physical and mental health of teachers and learners. 

This sure does feel like some kind of a déjà vu moment. 

In 2015, the five teacher unions represented at the Education Labour Relations Council called for a boycott of the annual national assessments. Sadtu came out first and said it had instructed its members not to participate in the assessments. It made its announcement a week before they were to be written. 


The assessments, which began in 2010, test the numeracy and literacy competency of grades 1 and 9. The unions rejected the assessments, arguing that they were not assisting learners and that teachers were teaching learners to pass the test. 

Sadtu also alleged that the department of basic education had failed to consult teacher unions on the assessments and that the assessments had been “reduced to an onslaught on teachers, with no intention to improve the system by ensuring fit for purpose intervention”. 

The assessments were not written that year. 

What took place, though, were back-and-forth consultations between the department and the unions and task teams were formed to come up with a better strategy, including possibly writing the assessments every three years instead of annually. 

That was that on the assessments. They have not been written again. 

Also, let me remind readers of this column about the period from July 2013 to March 2014. This is when Sadtu started to relentlessly call for the sacking of Bobby Soobrayan, then the director general in the basic education department. This is when the union went on one of their biggest nationwide protests calling for him and Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to be removed from their posts. 

The union had accused Soobrayan of many things, among them that he had failed to implement collective agreements reached in the national bargaining council and had been misusing funds. Motshekga instituted an independent investigation into Soobrayan, led by retired judge Willem van der Merwe. 

In February 2014, the investigation cleared Soobrayan of any wrongdoing. But a month later, he was “redeployed”. Not sure to where. 

Panyaza Lesufi, now the Gauteng MEC of education, was appointed the acting director general.

Back to Tuesday’s press briefing on the decision that schools should be closed because of the pandemic: When asked what Sadtu would do should the union not receive a favourable response to their request, Sadtu general secretary Mugwena Maluleke said something quite telling of how much power the union knows its possesses in the education system and how to use it in its favour. 

Maluleke said: “We are the teachers and, therefore, we know what strong method we can use to ensure that indeed we save the lives of learners, teachers and the lives of the community.” 

Make of this statement what you will, dear reader. 

The department has said it is the cabinet’s prerogative to decide whether schools should close. 

Kazi iyozala nkomoni. I wonder what the outcome of all this will be?

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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