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Virtually every suppurating sore on the South African body politic can be traced to a single cause. It’s the failure of basic education.

This week, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released a working paper on basic education in South Africa, Struggling to Make the Grade.

The paper, for all its diplomatically-worded civility, is a disturbing assessment from an influential international institution of the key factor in South Africa’s decline. Yet it was met with widespread indifference.

To paraphrase the IMF: South Africa spends more on education than most countries yet performs exceptionally poorly in comparison; our state teachers are paid comparatively well but mostly are absent, lazy, incompetent, unaccountable, and often know less than those they are supposed to teach; and that unless we tend the roots of learning, nothing higher up the educational food chain is ever going to be palatable.

The IMF has some distressing figures: 20% of state teachers don’t appear for work on Mondays and Fridays, and a third are missing at month-end; and in township and rural schools, there are an average of 3.5 hours of teaching a day, while in former white schools it’s 6.5 hours.

On the international tests cited by the IMF, South African “learners” performed near or at the very bottom, despite being measured against kids who were at least a year younger.

Basic Education’s spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga rejected the IMF paper out of hand. He cited as proof of the dedication of state teachers, once seeing pupils attending a Free State school on a Saturday, for free extra lessons.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga is admirably less coy than her spokesperson about the state of our education system. She told a parliamentary briefing a few years back that testing showed 80% of schools were dysfunctional.

The Mark of the Satanic Beast, at least in South African education, is not 666. It’s 80. Some 80% of schools are dysfunctional. Some 80% of learners, all poorer kids, attend dysfunctional state schools. Some 80% of teachers are unionised.

More than 80% of unionised teachers belong to the SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu).

And here is the lacuna in the IMF report - its Satanic Beast itself, Sadtu. Nowhere do the researchers critically examine the role that Sadtu plays in the basic education debacle.

It’s a puzzling omission. In 2015, Motshekga appointed a ministerial task team, comprising an array of respected educationalists and headed by Professor John Volmink, into the widespread “selling” by Sadtu of teaching appointments for cash.

The findings were political dynamite. The Volmink task-team concluded that Sadtu had a “stranglehold” over six of the nine provinces - the exceptions being the Western and Northern Cape and the Free State - exercising “de facto control” over their education departments.

The unions, Motshekga said, “appear to control government for selfish reasons which don’t benefit learners or the country”. The “dominant influence” of the unions was made possible by the “feeble and dilatory condition” of existing managerial and administrative processes.

She promised that the “rot that has infiltrated education” would be brought under control. “This blatant exploitation and corruption will not be tolerated.”

Hands up those of you in the class who think that in the intervening three years any substantive action has been taken by the ANC government against its union ally, Sadtu?

Yup, you’re right. Pretty much bugger all.

Although there were supposedly going to be SA Council of Education investigations, and provincial education department investigations, and SAPS investigations into 84 individuals identified in the Volmink report, no one has been fired, or disbarred or jailed. Or ever will be.

Nor have any of the policy changes that Motshekga promised been introduced. Or ever will be.

In fact, as Cyril Ramaphosa eloquently put it, speaking at a Sadtu congress a couple of years ago, “Sadtu has been a great boon, rather than a burden, to our education system.”

He praised the union for “transforming” education and added: “Some people don’t like strong unions, but the ANC does.” No change coming with Cyril’s “new dawn”, then.

* William Saunderson-Meyer is a columnist with the Independent On Saturday. He is @TheJaundicedEye on Twitter.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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