South African Teachers' Strike Shuts Schools, Compounds Educational Crisis
A teachers strike has shut schools across South Africa just weeks before year-end exams, compounding the failures of a state education system that has left more than half the country’s black youths unemployed.
Unions representing about 1.3 million state workers started an open-ended strike on Aug. 18, after the government rejected their demands for an 8.6 percent wage increase. The government offered an increase of 7.5 percent today to end the deadlock.
The strike has highlighted the government’s failure to improve apartheid-era educational levels that have left South Africa one of the world’s most unequal societies. A doubling of the education budget to 165.1 billion rand ($22.4 billion) in five years has failed to reverse a decline in exam results or to improve the standard of teaching.
“We are not getting return for our investment,” said Anne Bernstein, director of the Center for Enterprise Development, a Johannesburg-based research institute. “Some 75 to 80 percent of South African public schools are dysfunctional.”
Final-year pass rates fell to 61 percent last year from 67 percent in 2006. South African grade eight pupils came last in math and science in a 2007 study of 41 countries by the U.S.- based National Center for Education Statistics. Local students scored 326 in science, below Colombia with 411 and Iran with 470. The average was 516.
“While we are doing relatively well on enrolments, our weakness is in the quality of education,” Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said Aug. 25. “This is revealed time and time again.”
Under today’s pay offer, teachers with one year’s experience will earn about 230,000 rand a year, 50 percent more than four years ago, the Education Ministry says. Unions said they will consult their members and give the government a reply tomorrow. They previously said that the government overstates average teacher’s earnings by about 29,000 rand.
“I can’t survive,” said Nonyameko Mdludlu, 48, who says she has been teaching for 15 years and takes home about 4,300 rand a month after paying her housing loan and other deductions. “That’s why I am on strike. They are just oppressing us,” she said while attending an Aug. 26 protest march to Parliament in Cape Town.
The National Treasury says wages account for 32 percent of the country’s 850 billion-rand annual budget and it needs to reprioritize spending and rein in the budget deficit, which reached a 17-year high of 6.2 percent of gross domestic product in the year through March.
Besides higher wages for teachers, the increased education budget has been used to cover the costs associated with the growing number of students in the education system.
The education ministry says it still needs about 140 billion rand to refurbish and equip existing schools and build new ones, a backlog that it says will take 20 years to address given current budget constraints.
A substandard education has left 51 percent of blacks aged between 15 and 24 without jobs, and contributed to a wealth gap that sees 22 percent of the population surviving on less than 283 rand a month. South Africa’s Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, is 0.66, the second highest in the world after neighboring Namibia, a CIA Factbook ranking of latest available data shows. The coefficient measures inequality in a range from zero to 1, with zero referring to total equality.
Industry is starved of skilled workers, even in a country with an unemployment rate of 25.2 percent.
“We need our youngsters to study math, science and accounting at university” and the schooling system isn’t enabling them to do that, said Fezekile Tshiqi, human resources director of Johannesburg-based Nampak Ltd., Africa’s second- biggest packaging maker. The problem “starts with the quality of the teaching and the leadership in the schools.”
Under all-white rule, which ended in 1994, black children were condemned to schools that lacked books, desks, electricity and running water and were largely staffed by teachers who had sub-standard education themselves. Many of those teachers remain in the system and minimal progress has been made in retraining them.
In a September 2009 report, the Treasury said teacher training programs were poorly coordinated and the quality of courses was “questionable.”
Bernstein says there is a lack of “accountability” on the part of teachers. “Many teachers fail to teach and don’t get results, with no consequences whatsoever,” she said.
The education problems were compounded when the government introduced a system in 1998 whereby teachers were not required to follow a set curriculum and could utilize a wide range of teaching methods to prepare students for exams. It was abandoned this year.
“There have been so many changes to the curriculum within the last 10 years that teachers do not know what they should be doing,” said Ezra Ramasehla, president of the 50,000-member National Professional Teachers Organization of South Africa.
The 12 million pupils at the country’s 25,000 state schools are caught in the middle of the dispute.
“We are not attending school any more, we are just staying home,” said Vuyokazi Sijeku, 20, a grade 12 pupil in the southeastern town of Umtata, who wants to study law next year. “We are worried because we are not going to be ready for the final exams.”
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