Human Rights Day: There is a hostage situation in South Africa’s schools
Note to editors: This is an extract of a speech that was delivered today by DA Leader Helen Zille at the DA Human Rights Day march in Port Elizabeth.
It is my great pleasure to be here in Port Elizabeth today, a city we so narrowly lost in last year’s local government election. That election was important, and it was very sad to not be able to bring DA government to iBayi. But today, I am here on an even more important matter – to expose the hostage situation currently at play in many of South Africa’s schools.
I want to say right upfront today, and let me be clear – the Democratic Alliance respects and recognises the many thousands of teachers in South Africa who are diligent, hardworking and committed to their noble profession. They are pillars in the community, and in our society, and we honour them.
The Bill of Rights protects the rights of all South Africans against unfair treatment and exploitation, especially workers. This is the basis on which we have labour unions and comprehensive labour dispute resolution mechanisms. These are rights in a democracy.
The Constitution also guarantees the right of all South Africans to decent basic education. South Africans know that a quality education provides a ladder out of poverty and the door to a job opportunity.
But in South Africa today we have an organisation masquerading as a union that is kicking that ladder away, and slamming that door in the faces of our children.
It is unthinkable that the framers of the Constitution could ever have intended, or reasonably expected, that one of these rights would be so fundamentally abused in our democracy to the great and sad detriment of the other.
We believe that everybody’s rights should be protected in South Africa. This goes for teachers too. But we cannot have a situation where teachers’ rights trump the rights of learners and so severely compromise their ability to reach their full potential. That is why the framers of the Constitution included the clause in section 28 (2) of the Bill of Rights, which explicitly says that a “child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child”. That is crystal clear.
So it is that we are here at the offices of the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) in Port Elizabeth today. In recent months, this province has been the site of unprecedented strike action as tens of thousands of Sadtu affiliated teachers across this province went on a go-slow. By doing so, they jeopardised the education of millions of learners, in a province where education outcomes are already so low. And in a province which has the highest daily average absentee rate of teachers in the country.
We cannot hope to advance our country’s fortunes without a well educated population that can participate in the knowledge economy. Indeed it is precisely this that has lifted other emerging economies out of poverty and on to the high road to success. This is what we need to achieve in South Africa, if we are ever to eradicate poverty and create jobs in great numbers.
It is surely one of the greatest violations of human rights in our democratic dispensation to be rob our youth of the opportunities with which they can build their own future. And surely the greatest act of negligence is for a government to stand idly by watching it happen.
The conduct of Sadtu over the last two years is nothing short of a national disgrace. It deserves censure from every leader, of every party. To see President Zuma so flippantly thank Sadtu in his State of the Nation Address was to witness political expediency in its worst form. The President sold out the potential and future prospects of every South African learner for a few extra votes in Mangaung. And he thereby helped to perpetuate the crime of unequal “Bantu Education”.
The core problem is that unions in South Africa are used more often as a launching pad for political careers than to advance the real interests and resolve the honest disputes of workers. Union leaders dare not entertain concepts like accountability and duty, when such positions may undermine their rise in the ANC and Cosatu. Why should our children’s futures be sacrificed on the altar of the political ambitions of a select group of union cronies?
In 2010, President Zuma promised South Africans that teachers would be “in class, on time and teaching”. Just like his hollow promises to create five hundred thousand new jobs during that year, this was not to be.
Instead, we’ve had Sadtu teachers out of the class, in the streets, and definitely off-task.
The results of the rise and rise of Sadtu over the last decade are plain to see.
A Department of Basic Education Report on the Annual National Assessment of 2011 shows that Grade 3 numeracy rates have declined from 35% to 28% and literacy rates have declined from 36% to 35%. That means that only one in three children in grade three can read at the level required of them at that age. They are to be the future lawyers, bankers, engineers, scientists and industrialists and even at the tender age of 9 the majority of them are already at a severe disadvantage.
If we are to improve our education system and give learners a fair chance at achieving in life, we must have dedicated, accountable educators who are committed to the cause.
If we give people the opportunity to achieve, they can show extreme resilience even in difficult situations. In the Western Cape, the Education Department has set about making changes that aim specifically to assist those schools that need help the most. Teachers are exposed to intensive training programmes that ensure that teachers are given the chance to gain and hone their skills so as to do the best job possible. Time-on-task, and accountability for outcomes, are the foundational values that schooling in the Western Cape is built upon.
The success of these and a multitude of other interventions in the Province have seen results. For instance, in the 2011 Matric exams Lukhanyo Velelo was the top performer at his school, Sinenjongo High School in Joe Slovo Park. He achieved distinctions in mathematics, physical science, computer application technology, life sciences and life orientation. He obtained the first academic distinctions ever at his school. He is from a poor family from the Eastern Cape but did not let this dishearten him and managed to achieve academically in the Western Cape.
The percentage matric pass rate across schools serving the poorest members of our community has increased dramatically in the Western Cape. The pass rate of the poorest 20% of schools has improved from 57% to 70%, while among schools in the poorest three quintiles; the increase has been from 59% in 2010 to 70% last year.
That is real redress. That is real opportunity creation. That is the foundation for real economic empowerment. That is real transformation. I regard the improvement in education outcomes among the poorest of the poor in the Western Cape as the single most outstanding achievement of our government to date.
We need to replicate the Lukhanyo Velelo story many times over, and we’re committed to doing so where we govern.
We have to reduce the stranglehold on opportunity that Sadtu has on our schools. We reiterate our call for teaching to be declared an essential service, with the right to strike limited to after-school hours.
In terms of the Labour Relations Act, an essential service is defined as “a service which, if interrupted, would endanger on inconvenience the life or the health of people”.
In the spirit of Section 28(2) of the Bill of Rights, this definition should be expanded to include the learning of children. But even under the current definition it is incontestable that the interruption of schooling inconveniences the life chances of the children concerned. Just a day missed in following the curriculum puts children behind in their learning and risks their futures.
That is the real human rights scandal of our democracy, and we can’t afford to let it continue any longer.
Issued by the DA, March 21 2012
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