President Jacob Zuma

Cape Town - President Jacob Zuma has promised that if teachers are not in class on time and do not reverse high rates of absenteeism, he will be forced to bring back school inspectors.

He was speaking during an interview on CNBC Africa, televised on Sunday night, after he appeared to backtrack during his State of the Nation address on a vow by the ANC to declare education an essential service.

Trade union federation Cosatu and teacher union Sadtu have fiercely opposed the proposal, while constitutional law experts have said it would be near impossible to argue that teacher strikes could endanger lives, as required in terms of the definition of an essential service in the Labour Relations Act.

Zuma lamented teacher absenteeism: “If teachers were serious, they would be in class on time. If they don’t do this, this is going to push me to bring back the inspectors.”

A remuneration commission to look into what teachers were paid, announced during last week’s State of the Nation address, would also look into teachers’ working conditions.

The SA Democratic Teachers’ Union’s (Sadtu) primary argument against making teaching an essential service is that teachers strike because of working conditions, including low salaries, lack of resources and overcrowding.

Zuma said it was important that teachers were “actually teaching” and the commission would probe directly - by consulting the sector - their performance output.

Teachers would be asked: “What would be realistic, and what would be a satisfying package?

“It is all in the desire to ensure that education is taken seriously by us (as government).”

Zuma said the importance of maths and science teachers - identified as key to economic growth - would be considered, as well as the level at which teachers taught, as it was important to “retain skills in the profession”.

But he declined to give more details, saying the commission should be given a chance to do its work and its recommendations considered.

“Teachers will have a chance to engage with the commission,” he promised.

Zuma again promised that a youth employment accord would be signed by the end of February, but he stopped short of promising the implementation of a youth wage subsidy, saying the ANC and Cosatu would continue to have meetings on the issue.

“We are not saying there is going to be a silver bullet (on the wage subsidy). I wish there could be such a thing, because it would solve all the problems. There are going to be, I think, a number of measures that will be taken.”

He said that although the National Economic Development and Labour Council process had “taken a long time discussing the matter” of the subsidy there was agreement on a number of issues.

Zuma said he did not wish for the issues that had been agreed upon to be delayed by indecision over the youth wage subsidy.

Political Bureau