By Alexis Coopersmith
A recent teacher’s strike has left thousands of children to bear the consequences of a failing educational system in South Africa. As teachers across the nation join the strike against temporary contracts for instructors, increasing numbers of students go to class only to find their school in disarray, with no teachers in classrooms and scattered students attempting to learn on their own or playing on the playground.
The South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU), with the support of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), organized the nation’s teachers in demanding the resignation of the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga and Director-General of Basic Education, Bobby Soobrayan for their failure to address the needs of the public education system. On April 24th of this year, nationwide marches were held in Cape Town and in Pretoria in which thousands of SADTU members urged the Department of Education to respect collective bargaining and to reinstate all temporary teachers.
On the day of the marches, 2,474 teachers were absent, 163 schools were affected and 48 schools were shut down in the Western Cape of South Africa alone. When the issues of overcrowding and dismal student to teacher ratios are taken into account in these regions, the magnitude of the youth population affected by the strikes become apparent.
Teacher strikes are not unseen in the nation, as 2007 and 2010 saw the largest union action in the history of South Africa’s educational system. In 2010 schools throughout South Africa were shut down just before critical year-end exams. The strikes ended once the government offered a 7.5 percent wage increase to basic education teachers, however it did little to pacify the teachers for long. The most recent strikes further highlight the failure of the nation’s educational system in providing the youth with adequate opportunities for learning and pursuing a college degree.
Though the teacher’s strikes represent legitimate complaints about the lacking educational system and the conditions in which teachers work, leaving the classrooms in search of solutions inevitably results in two certain consequences: students abandoned by their educators and students denied their right to a proper education. (1)
Strike action by instructors should be a very last resort in seeking reform, yet it seems to be the go-to action for educators in South Africa seeking solutions to a myriad of grievances. Because the actions of the strikers directly impact the children and their futures, strikes should never be considered the best solution in demanding institutional reform. At every age, from the child learning to read to the young adult close to graduation, the loss of a teacher and the halting of classes are critical hindrances to opportunities and future prospects.
SADTU released a list of government demands in late April that gives President Jacob Zuma 21 days to acquiesce before further action will be taken by the union. The deadline is fast approaching, and it is uncertain what course the union will take if demands are not met.
According to SADTU General Secretary Mugwena Maluleke, “We will never be able to achieve our goals if we do not make sacrifices to change the country and the world.” Unfortunately, the sacrifice made by the union’s teachers is a well-educated youth in South Africa. This poses dire problems for the future of South Africa and its economy, but chiefly it is an infringement upon the basic rights of the nation’s children.
Government officials of South Africa denounce the withdrawal of teachers from classrooms and accuse educators of victimizing innocent children through their actions. The government has threatened to take legal action upon those teachers dismissing their duties to strike and of principals who allow their teachers to leave the classroom.
The President announced in February that the South Africa African National Congress is taking strides to make teaching an essential service, similar to the service of doctors, police officers, and other emergency professionals. This would make picketing or striking on the part of educational employees illegal and punishable by law. SADTU responded to the announcement with protests and threats of even greater strikes if it were to be implemented and it is currently unclear whether the government will follow through with this course of action.
While the political and economic debates continue, the youth affected by the protests continue to suffer. The children from rural areas and townships are hit the hardest by teacher’s strikes, where resources and educational services are already inadequate. Overcrowded schools must cope with fewer and fewer teachers as the strikes persist.
In many rural regions of the nation, large numbers of teachers have not gone to join the marches but have simply stopped teaching in protest. In Soweto, teachers remained at school but did no instruction. Students of Soweto were seen playing outside, leaving school grounds, and studying on their own, and neither teachers nor pupils were in classrooms. In one case, two students were found walking to a local market and when confronted, said their teacher had sent them to buy food (iol.co.za). This is demonstrative of the astonishingly problematic educational environment that persists in South Africa as the teacher’s strikes continue; unfortunately, this is the scene in schools throughout the nation.
As long as teachers leave the classroom in search of educational reform, children will be left behind. Seeking improvement in the nation’s educational system should not result in the victimization and sacrifice of the youth.
(1) Rossouw, J P. “The Feasibility of Localised Strike Action by Educators in Cases of Learner Misconduct.” South African Journal of Education (2012): n. pag. Web.
Photo by Nazareth College