President Jacob Zuma

WE will soon be able to tell whether the tail is wagging the dog – that is, whether the ANC is in charge of the country or real power resides in the hands of the trade unions that are politically aligned to the ANC.

The answer to this question lies in the outcome of the debate on whether education should be declared a national service.

The ANC has, justifiably, decided education should be top of its five priorities under the reign of President Jacob Zuma.

A new cabinet portfolio, headed by Blade Nzimande, was established to ensure primary, high school and higher education continued to get the attention they deserve from Minister Angie Motshekga.

The prioritisation of education by the ANC was later supported by the National Planning Commission’s diagnosis of education.

The decision to turn education into an essential service is one of the best decisions the ANC has taken in its 101-year history even though it has set the party on a collision course with its alliance partner, Cosatu, which represents key trade unions.

The South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) and National Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) have both voiced strong objections to the move by the ANC.

The ANC had no option but to take this radical measure, proposed by party members in KwaZulu-Natal, as the only practical way to ensure the education of South African children is not compromised at the altar of political strikes.

Many education hours and days have been lost in the past because teachers have embarked on strikes in support of what they deem as legitimate demands.

So serious is the ANC about this move that Zuma staked his last term on it. In his closing remarks to the ANC’s 52nd national conference, Zuma did not mince his words.

He was clear that something had to be done and now. The president stressed that the ANC could not stand by and watch the future of our children being destroyed.

Teachers, the president emphasised, must review their dress code and conduct. They must be in class on time, teaching.

In taking this stand, Zuma showed strong leadership. He and the ANC leadership identified problems with education and came up with a solution.

It’s expected of leaders to say and do the right things at all times. Zuma’s statements on education and what the ANC and the government would do to rectify matters were the right things to say and do. However, this message – regardless of the need for it – has not been music to the ears of the powerful unions Nehawu and Sadtu.

Both have seen red. They view the ANC’s attempt to deal with the huge problems that have bedevilled education as a threat to their power and, as some have stated, their constitutional right (to strike).

Interestingly, the unions have said nothing about the rights of the children to quality education – the rights that they have repeatedly violated in the past.

So, soon we will be able to tell, won’t we, whether the tail is wagging the dog? And soon we will be able to establish who in this country has the interests of our children, their future and their education at heart.

Over the years, the ANC has made it clear that the party is the leader in the tripartite alliance. Now is the time for the ANC to show the unions who is the boss.

The ANC has to stick to its guns on this crucial matter in the interests of South Africa’s children.

Declaring education an essential service is the only logical move that will bring to life the pledges that the president made in his speech in Mangaung, and will probably repeat in his State of the Nation address in Parliament in seven days’ time.

Even if the necessary move by the ANC does not pass constitutional muster, the message is out there and it is crystal clear: the ANC wants to do something about the devils in education.

Perhaps the ANC will not declare education an essential service, but it will have to do something equally drastic.

The big challenge is whether the ANC will be brave enough to take on alliance partners that have been instrumental in ensuring huge victories in elections.

Will the future of South Africa’s children be compromised at the altar of alliance politics and electoral victory?