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

Durban - Teacher strikes are hurting South African schools in ways even more damaging than the loss of learning time, while the willingness to down chalk rather than the ability to lead, have become the criteria by which principals are appointed, research undertaken in Umlazi schools has found.

The study, by Kathlyn Pattillo from the Wesleyan University in the US, says that as long as this is the case, post-apartheid education reform will fail to improve education in most historically disadvantaged schools.

The study comes as teacher unions and the ANC are at odds over the party’s intention to declare education an essential service.


Pattillo conducted interviews with more than 30 Umlazi school principals in 2010 as the public servant strike played out. That same year, the World Bank, in its report on development in Africa, termed the failure of public servants to deliver on goods or services paid for by governments as “quiet corruption”.

Examples included teachers who were either truant or did not teach even when present.

Pattillo focused her research on how Sadtu influenced the way Umlazi principals ran their schools.

“Though one might assume that the main impact would be through class time lost due to strikes, in actuality strikes are just a piece in a larger system of incentives,” she said.

The union’s influence was exerted through cadre deployment.

“This provided incentives for many leaders to prioritise their union activism, rather than committing to eliminating a culture of quiet corruption in their school.”

By swaying the school governing bodies, who conducted the appointment process for principals, those who enabled the quiet corruption were promoted to principal.

She suggests, as does the government, that the appointment process for principals needs to be rethought.

But, rather than giving the education department a bigger say, this power should be transferred from school governors to a body completely unaffiliated to teachers’ unions.

But Pattillo was adamant that blaming Sadtu for the country’s education woes, and portraying its members as greedy or selfish, is neither “constructive” nor “appropriate”.

“Teachers supported the 2010 strike action because it was the only mechanism available to express dissent against the ANC and ensure that they would be heard. Their grievances were directed towards inequality in the education system and inequality in the country as a whole,” she said.

“To avert teacher militancy in the future, the ANC needs to promote a more inclusive, responsive and democratic political culture.”

While improving school leadership was “a critical start,” schools could only do so much. Fixing education on a large scale would require fixing that which prevented township pupils from succeeding – poverty, crime, hunger and the lack of parent support and access to healthcare, Pattillo concluded.

Sadtu KZN provincial secretary Mabuyiseni Mathonsi said he had to read the research before responding.

The Mercury