Sunday Times STLive By Phylicia Oppelt, 2012-02-12

President's sick joke about Sadtu's wonderful teachers

Phylicia Oppelt is the editor of The Sunday Times
Image: Sunday Times

Zuma's praise for the laggards who teach our kids was way off the mark

It is an election year - of that there is no doubt. Listen to the president's speech from Thursday night and the promises of job creation through massive infrastructure spend are enough to make any unionist twirl with giddy delight.

That's all good and well - creating jobs is a major headache for South Africa and so too is its aged and inadequate infrastructure.

But to praise the SA Democratic Teachers' Union for its diligent teachers? That is just a step too far in placating the unions.

Because everything that we want for this country - engineers to build roads, doctors to heal our sick, entrepreneurs to grow our economy - has its foundation in education.

And what does our president do? He praises those who don't carry the concerns of their pupils in their hearts, who will down their chalk and textbooks to toyi toyi for their demands.

This is just unacceptable.

How can Zuma stand before this nation and its children and ignore what has happened in the Eastern Cape where teachers have been engaged in a go-slow protest since the beginning of the school year?

What is a child from Mdantsane to do when she arrives with the uniform, textbooks and school bag her parents had sacrificed to buy, and she barely gets a peek into a maths book?

What happens to her dreams of escaping NU1 (known during apartheid as Native Unit 1), probably one of the poorest sections of this township a mere 20 minutes from East London?

What does she tell her parents when they return from work at night - that her teachers were too self-obsessed with holding their employers to ransom to equip her for a future?

I lived in the Eastern Cape for four years and watched - for four heartbreaking, miserable years - the most dismal matric results. I've seen poverty as I have never witnessed before - in Duncan Village, Potsdam and in little villages between East London and the Transkei.

I have met children who had no chance of becoming anything but manual labourers or social grant recipients.

I've partly helped to educate a matriculant from Mdantsane who passed so badly that he could not study further. After spending a year at a private college, he passed as badly as he had at the Mdantsane school because 12 years of poor education could not be undone.

It isn't these kids' fault. Neither is it their parents' fault. It is just the way their lives had been ordained and how both the provincial and national ANC governments treated their citizens. It is the utter brazen contempt that is so often displayed by officials who while away their time in the Education Department's provincial office in Zwelitsha.

These children were born to become faceless representatives of a South African underclass - just like their parents.

Our politicians can continue soothing their consciences by blaming the seemingly insurmountable legacy of apartheid, a sluggish economy tested by a global crisis, a society deeply divided by poverty and inequality.

Unless we begin to address the very real and quite frightening fissures in our rather shaky foundations, we will continue being a nation divided, with a heavy foot stuck in the past.

Our vision has to be of a different future where the girl from Mdantsane can begin to envision a better life for herself.

But this requires far more than just channelling money into the development of infrastructure and reducing the price of electricity.

It actually requires moral authority and leadership where a president will spend far more than the 232 words on education that he did on Thursday night.

And he will not say to the go-slowers: "Our call to teachers to be in school, in class, on time, teaching for at least seven hours a day remains pivotal to success. We thank the teacher unions for supporting this campaign."

He will tell - no, instruct them - to get their lazy backsides back to their classrooms, to go-slow in their own time after school hours, and use their union representatives to fight their battles instead of the pupils in their care. A president who leads will tell Sadtu not to play with the future of this nation's children and tell principals not to have sex with pupils, not to arrive at school drunk.

He will tell them that this nation relies on their input to help raise generations of presidents, bankers, lawyers, engineers and teachers.

Perhaps next time, Zuma and his speechwriters could start his address by focusing on the real fundamentals that this country must overcome to set a truly magnificent 21st-century transformation agenda.

There needs to be a pact among the citizens of this country, but it will not come through a LeadSA campaign or individual efforts.

More than anything, it requires this country's first citizen to stand before us and take ownership of South Africa by saying the important things that will change our society from the very foundation.

Chances are though, that we'll hear a version of the same state of the nation next year because honesty is not akin to political survival.