OPINION: For SA to have a future, Motshekga must win against Sadtu
That we have a problem with our education system is probably something on which almost everyone can agree. Twenty one years after democracy, most parts of it are about as successful as the Springboks in the last five matches. And, as many agree, the magic bullet than can fix an economy and create wealth and thus fix a nation is education. One of the main factors that have held back progress in South Africa are teachers' unions, and in particular the South African Democratic Teachers' Union. Which is why it's so important for basic education minister Angie Motshekga to win her upcoming war with them.
Around the democratic world, teachers unions are something governments hate. They can be public enemies in some states of the US (public schools in Seattle were closed last week due to a strike), the UK and many, many parts of Europe. But because education is both so important and requires so many people, governments are in a bind. Their position of relative power is not the same as it is in other sectors. After all, teachers can always just leave the classroom, and leave the children of voters without anyone to care for them. This gives the relationship a series of dynamics all of its own.
Here, because of our own particular history, things are even more complicated. The South African Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu), of course, is part of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), and is thus part of the ruling alliance with the African National Congress (ANC). Which means that those in government are almost in a double-bind, they need education to succeed to win elections, but they can't go too hard on teachers because they're technically part of the same organisation. All you need to make this almost impossible is to add in a factional fight in which Sadtu's support could be important, as it is with the current ANC's attempts to keep Cosatu on its particular non-left straight and narrow, and you have a recipe for failure for someone. In this case, our children.
Such is the power of Sadtu that when we were looking at primary schools for our eldest, during open days I would look for any evidence of Sadtu activity at the school. Being middle-class, I only came across evidence of the presence of the less-militant National Professional Teachers' Organisation of South Africa.
It would seem Sadtu is well aware of the power that this position gives it. There has been a long-running scandal, uncovered by the City Press, that it has been controlling who get jobs as principals. The recent troubles at the Roodepoort Primary School that look on the face of it to have a racial dimension have a bearing on this as well. The parents who tried to disrupt schooling there claimed the principal had been appointed only through the power of Sadtu, and wanted her fired.
And in the past, Sadtu people have behaved terribly in public. Ronald Nyathi, a Sadtu leader in Soweto, once claimed that any school that stayed open during a strike would be 'declaring war' on teachers. A comment that saw him being rebuked by even the ANC Youth League, because it was too violent. There have also been claims that teachers have burst into classrooms during strikes and threatened children. (The danger and stupidity of such a move is breathtaking. Someone whose children are threatened in such a way is unlikely to just accept it and move on, Sadtu members could well be inviting violence upon themselves.)
Now, basic education minister Angie Motshekga has said she will go ahead with annual national assessments (ANAs), after appearing to back down 10 days ago in the face of threats from Sadtu. It would appear that she's playing politics quite well here. First, she said the ANAs would go ahead, then Sadtu (and it seems two other unions) opposed them, and at the last moment, she cancelled them. But the way in which they were cancelled made it clear that this was only because of Sadtu; in the public mind it was because of this one union. Then, after a week of facing questions about whether Sadtu was actually running her department, she reinstated the ANAs, and said they would be held in December.
This is quite canny: while it may look as if she was only reinstating the tests because of public pressure, what it actually shows Sadtu is that she has overwhelming public support. She has also made sure that the provincial education MECs back her, which means she won't be the only person fighting this out in public. And, Sadtu now has to explain in public why it was so opposed to these tests in the first place. Motshekga has also scheduled the tests for December, a time in the school calendar when things are slowing down after exams. Which means if they're cancelled at the last minute, holidays can just start a bit early, without the disruption that cancelling school in term time would cause.
Sadtu first said it was opposed to ANAs because it felt annual assessments weren't the best way of doing things, as a year wasn't long enough to take remedial action to fix the problems the assessments discovered. Rather, it wanted them brought in on a three-year basis. As an argument, it's hogwash. The more tests we do, the more data we have, the more we can see how things are improving or getting worse. There is a bigger question; should a union like Sadtu really get to have a say in policy here? Shouldn't Sadtu members really be implementers rather than policy directors?
Sadtu, and the other unions, also seem to object to the very idea of comparing schools and districts with each other. But there are many case studies in other countries showing how this kind of 'league table' system can really improve education. When the public know which schools are doing well, everyone is forced to up their game. And we mustn't forget how important it is for us to know, as a nation, the differences in the quality of education being offered in rural areas and richer urban ones. It's only through knowing that kind of information that we will be able to ensure rural children have the same opportunities as urban ones.
In the end, the question that Sadtu has to be able to answer in public is whether it considers the education of our children as important as, or perhaps more important than, the demands of its members. Up until now, the evidence is that it does not. So long as Motshekga can make sure that Sadtu is on the wrong side of this particular point, she is going to be on the right side of it.
She may also be hoping that she can provoke Sadtu into more inflammatory action, which could bring the ANC openly to her side. Luthuli House is almost certain to have her back in this now: President Jacob Zuma himself has said many times that "parents should be in class, teaching, for seven hours a day". Gwede Mantashe has publicly spanked Sadtu over strikes, pointing out that members' children are at former Model C schools, and thus aren't affected by strikes to the same extent.
The problem, though, is that in the end it is Sadtu members who have power over our children for much of the day. And that is the problem Motshekga is going to have to deal with. She will always get support from parents, who are perpetually concerned about their children's future. What she is likely to also get now is the open backing of the powers that be. In any war, you need as much help as you can muster. The coming clash between Motshekga and Sadtu is indeed likely to mushroom into an open war. For South Africa to have a future, Motshekga must win that war.
Stephen Grootes is the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk. He is the author of SA Politics Unspun. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes