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Tue Jul 29 18:46:10 SAST 2014

Strike a careful balance

Jonathan Jansen | 07 February, 2013 00:41

Teachers should retain the right to strike. The reported efforts by the ruling party to push for education as "an essential service" might seem, on the face of it, to be a good idea but, if implemented, could further erode the democratic rights available to working citizens.

This is, after all, the party of the secrecy bills and the toxic new higher education laws which threaten to asphyxiate individuals and institutions alike by depriving them of the democratic air that our society needs to breathe the promise of freedom.

These attempts to wield power recklessly and to control on the basis of electoral majorities constitute a much graver danger to the country.

My gut, of course, tells me that government should clamp down on teacher strikes, given the enormous damage done to the education of young children. The protracted strikes in the Eastern Cape, for example, explain in large part the persistently low scores of learners in primary schools (the ANA, or annual national assessments data) and in high schools (the NSC, or national senior certificate results).

While the Bill of Rights guarantees the right of workers to strike, the constitution also holds that "[a] child's best interest is of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child".

Given that the overwhelming majority of our children come from poor families, it makes sense that this one route out of poverty - a good education - should not be blocked because of strikes by educators whose children tend to be placed in middle-class schools, where there are little to no strike actions in any year.

But think again. Imagine you are a teacher in the Eastern Cape, one of the more devoted educators, and you show up day after day teaching your eight or nine classes without fail, only to find at the end of the month that you are not paid because of administrative chaos in Bhisho.

You write letters and receive no reply. You stand in long queues at the district and head offices, only to be told they cannot find your file.

Imagine there are hundreds or even a few thousand of you. The next month comes, and the next, and still no salary cheque. Debt collectors threaten you. But still you show up daily to teach every class with energy and enthusiasm.

You borrow money for petrol or taxi fare just to get you to school. It is embarrassing because teaching is supposed to be a proud profession. Then one day you realise the only way to get the attention of your employers is to withhold the only thing you have left to bargain with - your labour.

There are many variations on this theme of distress among good teachers. There are the Grade 1 classes with more than 100 children in a class and whole grades missing textbooks, as we saw last year.

I exclude the sizeable number of thugs who parade as teachers and those who do not teach, even on the days when there is no strike at all. My attention, for now, is on the good teachers who struggle to do their work and whose complaints are not heard by the officious, cold-hearted brutes in some of the provincial education departments.

In other words, clamping down on teacher strikes would, consequentially, protect incompetence in those provincial education departments who treat their hardworking educators with contempt.

Rather than take away the constitutional right of an employee to strike, we should be talking about the conditions under which strike action should be undertaken.

South Africa's problem is not strikes; it is the lack of constraint and the destruction of lives, property and reputations that inevitably flow from the ways in which strikes are conducted.

Strikes should be a last resort following clear evidence of inaction on the part of the government. Strikes should be limited to a set number of days, and preferably outside of normal instructional time.

Strikes that affect actual teaching and learning time should be made up immediately so the learner is not disadvantaged.

Strikes that are violent and destructive must lead to action against renegade teachers, including expulsion from the profession.

Strikes should under no circumstances lead to intimidation of those who, on the basis of conscience, choose to continue teaching.

And strike participants must not be allowed to disrupt the schools of the poor if their own children are ensconced in non-striking schools; that is unfair.

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