The education system is in crisis. Senior educator posts in some schools have been sold by unscrupulous union members, often working together with education department officials; recent studies reveal that many teachers responsible for tuition in English do not even have the vocabulary expected of grade three learners; and, in many schools, less than half the curriculum is covered by the end of every year.
These are carefully researched facts. Yet, when the ‘posts for sale’ scandal surfaced again last week, the reaction by the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU) was denial, accompanied by often vociferous accusations of political conspiracies and “union bashing”.
This dismissive reaction was to the recent, but limited and certainly flawed, ministerial task team report about accusations of senior posts in the schools system being bought and sold. SADTU branches rallied to the national office call to claim the report had “no credibility”.
Still, as the largest teacher union in South Africa, SADTU should know better, especially since it has faced these realities for years. Yet this tactic of denial and generalised accusations — common currency among politicians — merely makes it easier for the union bashers to sound reasonable.
The denialist tactic also opens up the way for government to introduce reforms that may seriously undermine union organisation and could further harm an already badly battered education system. This is evident in such task team recommendations that separate unions be established for office based staff and senior educators and that the power of school governing bodies be reviewed.
Most worrying is that the report tars all with the same brush; all union organisation seems to be regarded as a problem. Yet strong, democratic and accountable teacher unions are an essential part of any sound educational structure.
However, there has so far not been a single reported case of union members outside of SADTU being involved in such practices. Which does not mean that all SADTU members and branches are corrupt, merely that in many areas, elements of this union are behaving like ‘mini Mafias’.
This seems to be aided by the fact that the union is politically connected through the ANC-led alliance that admits to problems of ‘cadre deployment’. Political favours and nepotism all too often lead to greater corruption.
Although the task team report is flawed, it sometimes strays beyond its mandate, and is far too limited in its scope, it reveals the frightening extent of the problem, noting that “the Department of Basic Education has lost control of two-thirds of the country”. And it admits that “education officials are in implicit collusion with the unions to maintain a conspiracy of silence about the practice of buying and selling posts”.
These are statements of fact, the result of drawing together strands of anecdotal evidence that make up a solid pattern of apparent proof. “And we are the victims of this practice of cadre deployment and the buying and selling of posts,” say members of the other unions.
The National Professional Teachers’ Organisation (Naptosa) has also produced a detailed, nine-page response to the task team report. It calls for “deeper more pointed investigations” to be carried out.
This, the union feels, should include lifestyle audits of those accused of involvement in the “posts for sale” scandal. As Naptosa president, Basil Manuel points out, most corrupt practices do not leave a convenient paper trail; the evidence is largely anecdotal and needs deeper digging.
The South African Teachers Union, better known by its Afrikaans acronym, SAOU, has also responded, along much the same lines. Chris Kloppers, chief executive of the SAOU, wants further consultation on the report and “where necessary, collective negotiations”.
Manuel stresses that his union feels that “investigations should not be limited to schools, but should extend to provincial and district offices and all officials at all levels”. This is essential since even the limited investigation by the task team makes it clear that the level of collusion and corruption extends throughout the system.
The main question now is whether the political will exists to further pursue investigations and, above all, to act fairly and firmly.
The article was first featured in GroundUp. The views expressed are not necessarily those of Elitsha.