News / Opinion / Columns

William Saunderson-Meyer
3 minute read
30 Mar 2019
9:01 am

0% being done about 80% of our education problem

William Saunderson-Meyer

The ANC knows what's standing in its way to fix the system, but it seems powerless to fight them.

Members of the South African Democratic Teachers' Union (SADTU) are seen outside after marching from the putco depot in Marabastad to the department of higher education to deliver a memorandum of demands, 17 October 2017, Pretoria. Picture: Jacques Nelles

Virtually every suppurating sore on the South African body politic can be traced to a single cause. The failure of basic education.

This week, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released a paper on basic education in SA, Struggling to Make the Grade.

For all its diplomatically worded civility, it’s a disturbing assessment from an influential international institution. Yet it met with widespread indifference.

To paraphrase the IMF: SA spends more on education than most countries, yet performs exceptionally poorly in comparison; state teachers are paid comparatively well, but most are absent, lazy, incompetent, and often know less than those they are supposed to teach; and that unless we tend the roots of learning, nothing higher up the educational food chain is ever going to be palatable.

Some distressing figures: 20% of state teachers don’t appear for work on Mondays and Fridays, and a third are missing at month-end; and in township and rural schools, there are an average of 3.5 hours of teaching a day, while in the former white schools it’s 6.5 hours.

On the international tests cited by the IMF, SA pupils performed near or at the very bottom, despite being measured against kids a year younger. Basic education’s spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga rejected the IMF paper out of hand.

He cited as proof of the dedication of state teachers once seeing pupils attending a Free State school for extra lessons on a Saturday.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga is admirably less coy. She told a parliamentary briefing a few years back that testing showed that four-fifths of schools were dysfunctional.

The Mark of the Satanic Beast, at least in SA education, is not 666. It’s 80. About 80% of schools are dysfunctional. About 80% of pupils attend these dysfunctional state schools. About 80% of teachers are unionised. More than 80% of unionised teachers belong to the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu).

And here is the lacuna in the IMF report. Nowhere do the researchers critically examine the role that Sadtu plays in the debacle. It’s a puzzling omission.

In 2015, Motshekga appointed a task team, investigating the “selling” by Sadtu of jobs for cash. The findings were political dynamite. They concluded that Sadtu had a “stranglehold” over six of the nine provinces – the exceptions being the Western and Northern Cape and the Free State – exercising “de facto control” over their education departments.

The unions, Motshekga said, “appear to control government for selfish reasons”. She promised that the “rot that has infiltrated education” would be brought under control.

“This blatant exploitation and corruption will not be tolerated.”

Hands up, those of you in the class, who think that in the intervening three years any substantive action has been taken by the ANC government against its union ally, Sadtu? Yup, you’re right. Pretty much bugger-all.

Although there were going to be SA Council of Education investigations, and provincial education department investigations, and police investigations into 84 individuals identified in the Volmink report, no one has been fired, or disbarred, or jailed. Or ever will be.

Nor have any of the policy changes that Motshekga promised been introduced. Or ever will be.

In fact, as President Cyril Ramaphosa eloquently put it, speaking at a Sadtu congress, “Sadtu has been a great boon, rather than a burden, to our education system.” He praised it for “transforming” education. No educational change coming with Cyril’s “new dawn”, then.

William Saunderson-Meyer

William Saunderson-Meyer.

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