Durban - For almost a year, more than 500 teachers in KwaZulu-Natal have been struggling to buy groceries, pay for transport to and from work and pay their bills because they are yet to receive the salaries.

The numbers might be far higher, says the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) and the National Teachers Union (Natu). The two unions said the numbers would exclude those who had reported their cases to their various district offices across the province, rather than to the main provincial head office.

The National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa (Naptosa) said two of its members had reported a similar problem.

The Provincial Department of Education had blamed the problem on the #FeesMustFall campaign, which it said had prevented the South African Qualifications Authority (Saqa) from verifying the qualifications of new employees with universities.

Education spokesman Scelo Khuzwayo said the department was only aware of 250 teachers who had not been paid because of the qualifications authority’s being unable to verify qualifications.

“This is because tertiary institutions had disturbances. The department has now instructed districts to proceed with processing payments, with the proviso that necessary steps including recovery will be taken where it is later found that the qualifications were invalid,” said Khuzwayo.

Naptosa spokesman Anthony Pierce said: “There might be more of our members facing a similar situation.”

Sadtu reported 300, while Natu said it had 200 members who were battling because of the non-payment.

The provincial education department failed to capture their information on its Persal system, which allows them to be paid monthly.

Some of the affected teachers declined to talk to The Mercury as they feared intimidation.

Pierce said a teacher, who spoke to him on Monday, was desperate for income.

“These people are living from day to day on the support of their families. It is a very dismal situation,” he said.

As a result of failure to pay teachers, Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu had found that the department had underspent by R151 million in 2015/16 financial year.

After hearing about the situation, the chairwoman of the provincial committee on public accounts, Maggie Govender, said it was unacceptable that teachers had not been paid for almost a year.

Sadtu provincial secretary Nomarashiya Caluza said members of her union had not been paid since January, and that the department had said it was still verifying their qualifications.

“Survival is so difficult because they have to borrow money for taxi fare and to take care of their needs.

“A school principal would always tell the teachers that he submitted the documents to the department, which would respond by saying, 'We are still working on the appointments',” she said.

While teachers were waiting for their salaries they did not have medical aid or access to housing allowances.

Sadtu’s investigation had found that department staff responsible for the Persal system were working with scarce resources.

“We have discovered in Ulundi that a computer would be shared by 20 staff members, who would take turns to use it,” Caluza said.

She said the unions had raised the matter at the Education Labour Relation Council, where the department had blamed university unrest.

“For the department to blame this on #FeesMustFall is just hiding in plain sight because the unrest started about two months ago. It is unfair.

“We are inviting the MEC (Mthandeni Dlungwane) and acting chief financial officer (Lal Rambaran) to sort this out because it is derailing teaching,” she said.

Natu deputy president Allen Thompson said most of the teachers affected had been employed as substitutes.

However, he said there were permanent teachers who also had not been paid.

“Other cases of non-payment go back as far as November last year. We have made submission to the department alerting it to the cases. They always ask us to give them the names (of the affected teachers) and when we give them then the matter remains unresolved,” he said.

The Mercury