No place for striking teachers
Let me make a prediction that will be dismissed as alarmist, pessimistic and just plain wrong: the education system in South Africa will be as broken in 10 years as it is today.
The reason is simple. We are a nation that can talk the hind legs off a donkey but we fail dismally when we have to take firm action. So in 10 years we will be banging on about the dire state of our education, our children will be finishing matric with few or no skills, and the government will be making promises it cannot implement.
We are a nation of quislings, a people who cannot stomach taking tough action. Education in South Africa needs tough action. This is a crisis. But in just one week we have seen backbones dissolve because the SA Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu) does not like an idea, no matter how necessary it is for this country to survive the challenges of a challenging world.
A week ago, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe emerged from another post-Mangaung lekgotla and revealed that the ANC would "leave no stone unturned" in its quest to declare education an essential service.
"The starting point is, though you are not threatening life and limb, you do threaten the growth and the survival of society.
"We think that education should be an essential service if we are going to raise this society and the country to the level of being competitive globally," he argued.
He also said that, to resolve problems in education, one had to think beyond the narrow concerns of trade unions: "We can't just think narrowly: education is essential for society to uplift itself."
Wise words indeed. Well, you should have seen the response. Suddenly, people were going on about how the problems in education are multi-faceted.
They spoke about the poor education of teachers. The teachers' union, Sadtu, argued that there are infrastructural problems in education that must be "sorted". In one fell swoop, the fact that teacher strikes are a massive problem was relegated to being just one of the minor problems of our education system.
Don't get me wrong. Of course I agree that there are problems of quality teaching. Yes, it is impossible to teach when there are no classrooms, chalk, boards, desks or textbooks. These are huge problems, and the government must resolve them. Urgently.
However, the truth is that education would not be such a mess in Eastern Cape were it not for the fact that teachers in that province struck for more than six weeks last year. The truth is that much of the failure of our education system throughout the past 12 years is directly linked to successive teacher strikes and the negative role - particularly in the protection of incompetent principals and teachers - of Sadtu in our education system.
Something must be done about this. The first step might be to say that our nation is in crisis because our children are not learning. For any child in a rural or township government school, the future is bleak.
Every possibility of a solution towards resolving the problem should be explored and implemented. Stopping strikes by teachers is a necessary first step.
But the voice of Sadtu is beginning to chip away at the ANC's resolve. The governing party must not bow to the pressure.
President Jacob Zuma and his party need to show their teeth on this one. They will be rewarded by the fact that, in 10 years, we will be a proud people, a proud country educating its children, not the laughing stock that we are today.
At the ANC's Mangaung conference in December, Zuma called for the return of school inspectors.
"Some might oppose this. Some of our friends in labour, even, don't like this idea. If they don't, then we will just send them to find teachers not doing their work," he said.
Very little has been said since about school inspectors. Soon, declaring teaching an essential service will fall from the headlines, too.
That would be a tragedy.
Zuma must resuscitate the school inspector issue in his State of the nation speech and should get Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga drafting regulations to bring them back. The ANC must push ahead and show its resolve to stop teachers from striking. It must not back down. We cannot allow the futures of our children to be hijacked and frustrated by the narrow interests of Sadtu.
The ANC must show some mettle. It must do, not just talk. It must make all the improvements people talk about - build classrooms, deliver books, improve teacher training and cut down class sizes - but it absolutely must forge ahead with stopping teacher strikes. Otherwise we will be in this exact same spot in 10 years.