Overworked Eastern Cape education assistants unpaid

Lungile Jacobs*, 32, was looking forward to helping learners as a “reading champion” in a quiet corner of the classroom while the teacher focused on teaching the curriculum. He was shocked when he was handed a textbook instead and given three full classes to teach. 

“I teach on my own, with no supervision. Right now, I’m marking tests for my three classes,” says Jacobs, an education assistant from a primary school in rural Tsomo, 60km inland from Butterworth. “In grade one, there is an education assistant struggling with a whole class on her own. Some of us teach classes of 120 pupils in high school.”

Jacobs is part of a number of frustrated education assistants hired under the Presidential Youth Employment Initiative. By law, they are not supposed to be teaching classes as they are neither qualified nor registered as teachers with the South African Council of Educators. These education assistants marched to the Eastern Cape’s Department of Education on 20 June, demanding to be paid their outstanding R4 080 monthly stipends. They spoke about how they are being exploited, sworn at by government employees and not paid on time. 

Six million unemployed young people applied for the 320 000 jobs that were set up in 2020 across South Africa as part of the initiative. Young people can work as education, general or sports assistants as part of five-month contracts rolled out in phases. Phase three is currently under way from May to September 2022.

But in the Eastern Cape’s Tsomo, Butterworth and Mthatha areas, the education assistants say their five-month phase-three contracts have been reduced to four or three months and some have not yet been paid for May’s work.

Zimasa Shezi*, 31, has been working as an English language reading champion in a Butterworth school since November 2021. She is concerned because she signed a contract that had not been properly filled in and has not yet been paid.

“When we signed our contracts we were told not to mind if contracts had blanks because the department would fill them. Because we are hungry, we will do anything. But now we are told we will only get half pay. We don’t know where the money is going,” says Shezi.

According to Shezi, education assistants have to use their stipends to photocopy worksheets for learners. “The school just tells us this is a [President Cyril] Ramaphosa project and there’s nothing in their budget for anything,” she adds.

She says they don’t have a trade union to represent them as a group, and so the education officials either “swear [at] and insult” them when they ask for clarity, or fob them off, telling them “not to panic”.

A battle of words

Luzuko Mqadi*, 25, has an undergraduate science degree and is hoping to get a bursary for postgraduate study. He loves his temporary job as an education assistant but has experienced all the problems that Shezi and Jacobs have.

“We make a real difference. The learners find it easy to interact with us because we are young. There were no jobs for us when we graduated and this work and stipend was making a huge difference in our lives but now the department is messing with us while we are desperate,” says Mqadi.

He says the department often asks rural education assistants to bring their documents immediately to the district offices in towns or cities. They have to spend more than R100 on taxi fares to get there, only to be told later that the documents have been lost and that they must come back again.

The frustrated young workers have taken to social media to accuse the department of corruption and “eating our cent”, with one person writing on Eastern Cape education member of the executive council (MEC) Fundile Gade’s Facebook page: “Shame on you and your greedy department … You are taking advantage of the voiceless.”

Gade lashed out at her in a comment that was later deleted but not before the youth employees had distributed a screenshot.

“In SA we all have a right to choose, if you have such an argument and you so believe you can be better somewhere where you comparing the province to, just take a decision to go there and make such demands. Ungrateful people like you are a problem in every society … We trying to employ as many people as we can by trying to flatten the rate of payment. Wena, you come with insults and all sundry because you are entitled to be rich over a year, we don’t have time for insults now that don’t have basis … There are many families we need to touch without making you a rich girl of a city overnight [sic],” Gade wrote.

Gade’s spokesperson Vuyiseka Mboxela was unrepentant, saying, “We all have a right to ask and critic government and its leaders, but the tone is also important … This lady for some time has been having that unfortunate tone for some time without even gathering facts. The word ‘greedy’ is wrong and can be interpreted in many ways [sic].”

But a few days later, presidency spokesperson Vincent Magwenya supplied a comment from the Eastern Cape education department claiming that Gade never wrote the post.

“We are also saddened that there are imposters who are pretending to be the honourable MEC and post defamatory statements which are meant to tarnish the name of the MEC. The MEC will never post such irresponsible derogatory messages as the department we would like to apologise and assure everyone that the purported post was never from the MEC but to distractors who want to bring the good name of the honourable MEC into disrepute [sic].”

Department plays for time

The Eastern Cape was allocated the second largest slice of the budget for the presidential initiative in public schools. The province received just over R1 billion to fund 40 100 positions. 

In response to the education assistants’ concerns, national education department spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga said his department had given the Eastern Cape permission to start phase three contracts later so that they could save money to fund phase four. It was not clear where the funds initially budgeted for phase four had gone. He added that education assistants were not permitted to teach classes on their own and should contact the national department to lodge complaints about this. 

The Eastern Cape department of education says all education assistants who worked in May had been paid and those who started on 15 May would be paid on 15 June. “The department is only making sure that all participants are paid for work done and ensuring that no one is paid without rendering any services,” says the Eastern Cape department of education.  

But by 21 June the assistants who were interviewed said they had still not been paid. “We didn’t even get a cent,” said one.

In February this year, GroundUp reported that “hundreds, possibly thousands” of the Eastern Cape education assistants had not been paid for two months of their phase two contracts. At that time, the department blamed a payroll bungle by three officials and said it would conduct a forensic audit. 

* Not their real names. The workers asked to use pseudonyms for fear their contracts would not be extended in phase four.

This article was first published by New Frame.

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Anna Majavu
Anna Majavu is a trade unionist and journalist currently completing a PhD in journalism

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