The ANC has again come under fire for its statement on making education an essential service – this time from the DA, which has accused the ruling party of backtracking from its initial stance of putting pupils’ rights first.

DA spokeswoman on education, Annette Lovemore, said on Wednesday the ANC was once again “wilting to pressure” from its alliance partners on the issue.

“It seems the party is more concerned with appeasing its alliance partners than putting the rights of learners first by limiting teachers’ right to strike,” she said.

She was responding to comments by ANC secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, in which he said the party was not calling for a change in the law to prevent teachers from striking, but rather calling for a social pact to stop disruptions.

Mantashe was quoted in The New Age newspaper as saying the party wanted to put more emphasis on “attitudes and behaviour” to avoid disruption of education.

“We are not saying it should be declared an essential service from a legal point,” he reportedly said.

After a lekgotla of the party’s national executive committee on Monday, Mantashe had said “the ANC and its government will leave no stone unturned in making education an essential service”.

He said the unions should welcome the decision, as this showed how seriously the party took teaching and education.

Under the Labour Relations Act, a service is deemed to be an essential service if the interruption thereof endangers the life, personal safety or health of the whole or any part of the population. Staff in such services are prohibited from striking.

ANC spokesman, Jackson Mthembu, said on Wednesday the party had used the term “essential service” from a political point of view, and not as a legal definition.

“When you start a discussion, you don’t start with a legal framework… We don’t talk legal jargon here. Our argument is that before you get into these legal definitions and jargon, it’s important that we enter the debate from an informed aspect. Our argument has been that we all need to treat education as an important societal matter so that our attitudes change,” he said.

Mthembu said it was time that communities, including teachers, unions, pupils and education officials, started looking at their role in education.

He said there were still teachers who had “more absents than presents in class”, pupils who didn’t care to do their homework and parents who didn’t attend school meetings and their children’s sporting activities.

“We are saying that everybody involved in education must treat it as essential… then we can look at the right definitions of what essential service is later,” he said.

The about-turn comes amid fierce criticism of the move from Cosatu and its affiliated unions, including the SA Dem-ocratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) and National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu).

Lovemore said it was disappointing that this new-found courage and commitment to the best interests of pupils had lasted for only two days, and crumbled against the backlash from teacher unions.

“The ANC has an unfortunate history of putting the interests of its alliance partners first, often to the detriment of the youth of this country. First they backtracked on the implementation of the youth wage subsidy, and now they are backtracking on limitations on teachers’ right to strike.”

She called on the government to stop bowing to the interests of trade unions, and to start implementing steps to ensure pupils received the education they were entitled to.

Nehawu said while the proposal was not necessarily about legislation, but “attitudinal adjustment”, it had created “unnecessary confusion and ambiguous messages” that had caused a furore and diluted the proposal’s significance.

Meanwhile, the National Congress of School Governing Bodies came out in support of the ANC proposal. The body’s secretary-general, Monokoane Hlobo, said it had recommended last year to the ruling party that it consider making education an essential service.

“We are proud that our recommendation has been taken forward by the ruling party,” Hlobo said.

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