100902. Cape town. SADTU Members protest outside Westerford High in Rondebosch. Picture Henk Kruger/Cape Argus. Reporter Ester Lewis

Cape Town - The ANC has again come under fire over its statements on making education an essential service, this time from the DA.

The DA has accused the ruling party of bowing to union pressure, and backtracking from its initial stance of putting pupils’ rights first.

DA education spokeswoman Annette Lovemore said on Wednesday that the ANC was again “wilting under pressure” from its alliance partners.

“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, who 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 reportedly told The New Age newspaper the party wanted 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.

This contrasted with his firm statement issued after a meeting of the party’s national executive committee on Monday. Then, Mantashe said: “The ANC and its government will leave no stone unturned in making education an essential service.”

And he said the unions should welcome the decision as it showed how seriously the party took teaching and education.

Under the Labour Relations Act, a service is deemed to be essential if its interruption endangers the life, personal safety or health of any part of the population. Staff in such services, such as police, 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. He said it was important that the debate began “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. The issue is an attitudinal matter at this stage.

“This is the attitudinal change we are talking about for now… 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.”

The about-turn comes amid fierce criticism of the original plan from Cosatu and its affiliated unions, including the SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) and National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu), among others.

Lovemore said it was disappointing that the newfound courage and commitment to the best interests of pupils had lasted for just two days.

“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 said.

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 spokesman Sizwe Pamla said while it was indisputable that education was essential and critical to the life of the nation, instead of defining it as an essential service, the government should find a “holistic approach to solving education problems and not fault finding”.

“We reiterate our opposition to any attempts to narrowly reduce the definition of essential service of education to mean that teachers are not allowed to exercise their legal right to strike. Any attempt to legally bully workers by designating education an essential service will fail because we will challenge it at all levels with whatever means,” Pamla said.

The SACP weighed in, calling earlier this week for the term “essential service” to be dropped in order to keep the spirit of the proposal.

Meanwhile, the National Congress of School Governing Bodies has come out in support of the original ANC proposal.

Secretary-general Monokoane Hlobo said it had recommended this to the government last year.

Political Bureau