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In post-apartheid negotiations, the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU) agreed to the implementation of redeployment and rationalization strategies in the country’s education sector. The influence of the government’s macroeconomic strategies (i.e. GEAR), however, has negatively affected educational reform causing serious flaws in its implementation. Success in this sector hinges largely on the strength of SADTU, its members and its leaders, according to the author. (dkc)

vol 13 no 2

The big bungle: Teacher re-deployment in South Africa
David Chudnovsky

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 13 No 2, March 1998
Page 26



David Chudnovsky, a teacher in Surrey, British Columbia, and executive member of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation, has worked with the South African Democratic Teachers' Union (SADTU) on the development of training programmes.

"To the disadvantaged, rationalization is a long overdue process. It means the redistribution of financial and human resources in order to effect equity. ... Born out of struggle and being part-and-parcel of the cause for the poor, SADTU aligns itself with the ... position - that rationalization must take place to address the imbalances of the past.

(South African Democratic Teachers' Union General Secretary Thulas Nxesi, SADTU News August 1996)

Apartheid education was a fundamental factor in the success of the old South Africa. It was both an expression of racism towards the children of the country, and a key ideological training ground for the perpetuation of apartheid.

The state organized separate ministries of education for each of the so-called racial groups in South Africa - White, Indian, Coloured, African. Each of these had its own bureaucracy, curriculum and examination system, and funding. State revenues were allocated inequitably. During the apartheid era, as much as ten times the resources were distributed to White schools as were made available to African schools. As a result, pupil teacher ratios in White schools were often as low as 16:1, while they reached 60:1 or more in many black areas.

Since 1994, a massive program of reform has begun. All of the previous structures have been consolidated into one Department of Education. The entire curriculum - from pre-primary to post-secondary - is being re-written. Both pre-service and in-service teacher training is changing radically. The law has been changed to require, for the first time, that all young people attend school.

The African National Congress - by far the most popular political party in post-apartheid South Africa, and the senior partner in the National Government - has committed itself to an education system which provides equal opportunity for all children. But the pace of reform is often hesitant and uneven, at times ambiguous at best.

A case in point is the attempt to redress the historic inequality in pupil teacher ratios (PTR). Clearly, dramatic steps must be taken to make PTRs more equitable if the commitment to equality is to be more than a slogan. Granted, there is much more to education than PTR. Indeed, there is much more to education funding and resource allocation than PTR. Nevertheless, analyzing initiatives in this area can shed light in a very practical way on the resolve of the government, and the ability of the new South African society, to take the concrete steps necessary to improve the lives of the majority of its citizens. On its face, a commitment to redressing historical inequities in the area of PTR seems a simple matter to deal with. However, the legacy of apartheid is everywhere an impediment.

Constitutional Challenges

During the negotiations for a new constitution which took place prior to the 1994 elections, the leaders of apartheid South Africa searched desperately for a way to secure a state apparatus which would continue to serve their interests. For them, this meant a guarantee that there would be no purge of civil service positions, and that the structure of the state would remain substantially unchanged. This objective had two purposes. The obvious one was to attempt to insulate government and state structures from meaningful reform, notwithstanding the imminent victory of the ANC. The second was more practical. The state had been a source of employment for white supporters of the system, and an attempt was made to defend these jobs.

The ANC proposed a total transformation of the state - for the right, to reform the government and its institutions at every level in the post-apartheid period, so the bureaucracy could not block needed changes, and to open up jobs to those who previously had been excluded. In the end, a compromise was struck: all those who were in employment were guaranteed their jobs, but once those individuals left their positions, a democratic, non-racial approach would be used in hirings. The new government's right to hire additional employees would not be restricted, and it was expected that those who remained on the government payroll would be offered incentives to leave their positions early.

These agreements later became critical to the issue of reform, redeployment, and rationalization in the public education system. In addition to this constitutional compromise, the new government pledged when it took power after April 1994 that there would be no layoffs (retrenchments) of state employees, including teachers. This was a personal pledge by President Mandela.

Rationalizing the teachers

In 1995 and 1996 the government and the teachers' unions negotiated an agreement which, it was hoped, would lead to an orderly rationalization and redeployment of the teaching force based on the commitments that had been made, the needs of students, and the input of teacher organizations. The process was to work as follows. First, a buy-out would be offered to any teacher in the country willing to leave his or her post. Some consideration had been given to making these incentives available only to those educators who taught in areas where there was a relative over-supply of teachers (i.e. in white schools). But this was rejected for a couple of reasons. First, in post-apartheid South Africa, a good deal of time and energy is spent on formulating policy which explicitly rejects racial categorization. Second, it was realized that buy-outs offered to white teachers only would simply add to their privileges relative to their non-white colleagues.

The second stage in the process called for teachers to willing relocate to historically disadvantaged areas. The next step was to be an assessment or audit of the distribution of educators in the country. These analyses would demonstrate the effects of the historical inequities, the buy-outs, and the voluntary redeployments. Finally, there was to be a process of appointing teachers to achieve a balanced PTR, somewhere in the 1:35 or 1:40 range, across the entire country. It was agreed that at the end of the process there would be no fewer teachers in South Africa than at the time of the agreement. Further, in line with government policy described above, there were to be no retrenchments or forced retirements.

SADTU responds

The South African Democratic Teachers' Union (SADTU) is the union representing a majority of teachers and principals in South Africa. An affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, SADTU grew out of the anti-apartheid struggle, and the movement towards unity and consolidation of the former ethnically based teacher organizations.

SADTU negotiated and agreed to the plan for redeployment and rationalization. The union saw the process as a genuine attempt by the government to improve the educational situation of the vast majority of students in the country. Moreover, the plan was consistent with trade union principles: there was to be no coercion (no teacher would be forced to change jobs), there were to be no layoffs, and PTRs for the vast majority would be reduced (so working conditions - and learning conditions - would improve).

Some SADTU members opposed the plan. They argued that to agree to incentives for teachers to leave the profession when millions of students were in very large classes - if they were in school at all - was irresponsible. Moreover, it was argued, the money spent on the buy-outs could be used better to improve the system itself. Nevertheless, ultimately SADTU and the other teachers' unions agreed to the plan.

In practice, however, the process of rationalization and redeployment has been fraught with difficulties and disappointments. Many black teachers working in the most disadvantaged areas have taken advantage of the incentives offered and left the profession. Many of these are senior and experienced teachers and principals, as the buy-outs are most attractive to those with the most seniority. In addition, after accepting buy-outs, some educators have been hired to senior positions in the system: their very seniority and experience makes them valuable to the education system. This has understandably generated a great deal of bitterness among teachers left in the profession, and the public.

The state (now the nine new provincial governments) has also been unable to determine how many teachers work in the schools. For the most part, this is a result of the underdeveloped structures and processes left over from apartheid days. Several of the provinces have been unable to respond to SADTU's simple request for the number of teachers working in those provinces, for instance. In other cases, the figures provided by the ministries have been so obviously incorrect that they are not reliable for the serious discussions which must take place between union and management.

Instead of implementing improved PTRs, SADTU and the government have spent much time debating the number of teachers currently in place. The situation is more difficult in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, the two provinces which do not have ANC provincial governments. In these cases there is a political motive to delay providing basic information and data, and in implementation change, in addition to the other reasons.

To make matters worse, all provinces must address the bizarre phenomenon of phantom teachers. It is not clear how many pay cheques are issued each month to teachers who either don't exist, or who only show up at school to receive their cheques but do no teaching, but certainly there are thousands - and perhaps tens of thousands. This situation again is a legacy of apartheid. Administration and organization of the former African schools was so chaotic that it was relatively easy to continue to collect the pay of a deceased teacher or one who had moved or left the system. Moreover, the anarchy in many African schools in the decades leading to the defeat of apartheid, resulted in many emotionally disabled teachers who are unable or unwilling to carry out their duties to this day.

Teachers rally

By mid-1997 it was clear that there were serious flaws in the implementation of the plan which was to have substantially re-shaped the teaching resource base of South African schools. In many areas the situation was actually worse than it had been in 1995. Some staff members had taken buy-outs, and were not replaced. This was most often the case in the most disadvantaged areas which had expected dramatic improvement. Though there are no reliable statistics, it is probable that there are fewer teachers today in South Africa than there were in 1995. In April, May, and June, tens of thousands of SADTU members in several provinces rallied and marched to highlight their frustration with slow and bungling progress. In early June, the SADTU leadership took the unprecedented step of writing a public letter directly to the Minister of Education, strongly stating their displeasure with the process.

Obviously, the issue is complex. What is less obvious is why such disappointments have been encountered. Clearly, the legacy of racism, in its profound and subtle manifestations, is the chief culprit. Other factors are also important, however. It is evident that the redeployment and rationalization process has been flawed.

Also troubling, the current macro-economic strategy of the government provides a difficult, if not impossible, context in which to execute effective education reform. This has been a dramatic change in government policy. Recall the Reconstruction and Development Programme, upon which the Alliance campaigned for the ANC in the April, 1994 election:

The central objective of our RDP is to improve the quality of life of all South Africans, and in particular the most poor and marginalised sections of our communities. This objective should be realised through a process of empowerment which gives the poor control over their lives and increases their ability to mobilise sufficient development resources, including from the democratic government where necessary. The RDP reflects a commitment to grassroots, bottom-up development which is owned and driven by the communities and their representative organizations.

With the unveiling of a new government macro-economic strategy in 1996, the GEAR (Growth, Employment, and Redistribution), the focus of government policy has changed. The GEAR is characterized by a focus deficit reduction, conventional monetarist policies (inflation is a principal concern), private sector growth policy, and trade liberalization. This all too familiar approach has had the inevitable effect of squeezing public services, and threatening public sector jobs.

* * *

In November and December 1997, the education departments of all the provinces announced massive layoffs of teachers. They were responding to budget constraints imposed by the national government, but the retrenchments were in direct contradiction to the commitments made by the ANC and by Mandela, and the agreements negotiated with SADTU. SADTU threatened to go to court to get an injunction to prevent the retrenchments. On January 16, there was a breakthrough in negotiations between the union and the Minister of Education, Sibusiso Bengu, when seven of the nine provinces agreed to rehire the teachers or postpone plans to allow their contracts to expire. Discussions with the other two provinces (Gauteng and Western Cape) were still continuing.

Given current government policy, these flare-ups seem inevitable. What is heartening is the commitment of teacher unionists to press for a thorough reform of the education system, to serve the needs of the children of South Africa. SADTU's leadership, and its ability and willingness to mobilize its membership, will be an important factor as this issue continues to development.

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