In an incredible irony, copies of Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country were among the thousands of books shredded and dumped in what can only be described as an orgy of destruction in Limpopo. Yet it was only the sheer scale of the destruction that surprised members of the Cosatu-affiliated SA Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu).
Last December, in this column, Samwu called for “an in-depth audit of every aspect of governance and service delivery in Limpopo to be conducted openly and transparently”. As the national government moved to take over five provincial departments in that province, union spokesperson, Tahir Sema warned that Limpopo “is run by thugs — gangsters — not politicians”.
This week, in an echo of a letter of protest written to the ANC leadership in 1969 by liberation icon Chris Hani and seven of his comrades, Samwu complained of “the rot” that exists in all spheres of government and of the “corruption, nepotism and cronyism” prevalent “at all levels”.
Members of Samwu and other unions have also confirmed, especially over the past year, that “honest shop stewards” fear for their lives if they speak out. According to Tema: “Mainly in Limpopo, but also in the North West, our members have faced physical threats and we know that (the thugs) will go as far as killing to silence whistle blowers.”
Within this scenario, one question is increasingly being asked, both within the labour movement and beyond: where were the teachers and the teacher unions when the whole text book debacle was unfolding in Limpopo?
Other unions and individual teacher unionists have spoken out, often on condition of anonymity, but there has been a marked reluctance on the part of the dominant, 224 000-strong SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) to voice any criticism. As late as last month, Sadtu was approached by human rights group Section 27 to join the group in tackling the education crisis, starting with Limpopo.
It was Section 27 that initiated the court case that brought the books debacle to public attention. “And we regard Sadtu as a vital and necessary role player and potentially a key to finding a solution to the crisis” says Section 27 executive director, Mark Heywood.
But there was no response to a written request for a meeting with the Sadtu leadership, and a number of subsequent telephone calls were not returned. A “dedicated but very worried” Sadtu member explains: “It’s a mess because the union has become part of government. A Sadtu member like Angie (Motshekga) is now the minister of basic education and Thulas (Nxesi, the immediate past general secretary of Sadtu) is minister of public works.”
A Western Cape provincial official also pointed out that there was reluctance to be involved with “any group seen to be anti-government”. There was a “desperate need for Sadtu to get its house in order as a union”.
This sentiment is shared by a number of Sadtu members who are among many teachers who fear that the non-delivery and destruction of text books in Limpopo may now obscure the plethora of other difficulties facing the schooling system — and not just in that province. These include poor staffing, inadequate teacher training, sexual abuse and the intimidation of school principals and teachers by officials of education departments and sometimes of the major union.
That the malaise extends beyond Limpopo was highlighted with the announcement that the Eastern Cape education department will be taken to court next week for failure to fill vacant teaching posts. Both provincial and national departments are named in the action, brought by the Legal Resources Centre and supported by Section 27.
In March this year, the SA Teachers’ Union/Onderwys Unie (SAOU) also raised with the education department what the union considers the priority problem: the poor quality of teacher training. “A good teacher, even without text books, can make a positive difference,” says SAOU general secretary, Chris Klopper.
Late and non-delivery of text books is also something that has been complained about for several years. According to Cosatu’s Phindile Kunene, editor of the federation’s Shop Steward magazine, it is a “stark example of what happens when mediocrity and incompetence are institutionalised”.
She adds: “Cosatu strongly believes that part of the problem emanates from the outsourcing of crucial education services such as the printing and distribution of textbooks and other learner support materials.” Part of the blame is sourced to distribution company, Edu Solutions.
“Edu Solutions has a long history of incompetence, gross over-pricing as well as late delivery of learner support materials in many provinces,” says Kunene. Cosatu is demanding how contracts were awarded and who sanctioned them.
A number of teachers have also pointed out that former education department officials continue to have links with companies awarded tenders to print and distribute educational materials. This is an issue that was raised in January last year when a series of workbooks were not delivered on time.
In the firing line then was Salama Hendricks, a former senior education department official who left the department under a cloud seven years ago and who is now a shareholder in the Lebone Group that last year controversially won a R250 million workbook tender. She is the mother-in-law of Bobby Soobrayan, the director-general of the basic education department. Soobrayan’s wife, Fathima, was his former personal assistant in the department.
Although Salama Hendricks was earlier associated with Edu Solutions and its parent, African Access Holdings, she apparently severed relations with them several years ago. Hendricks, Soobrayan and the companies involved have all denied that any conflict of interest exists now or existed previously.
This is one of the areas that former education department director-general Mary Metcalfe and a team of specialists, along with apparently two other “official” inquiries, may now investigate in Limpopo. Perhaps one of them will note that a beneficiary of the books debacle is the Treasury: it qualified for 14 per cent of the cost of all those books, as VAT.