South African Minister Seeks Limit to Teacher Strikes

South Africa’s government plans to classify education as an essential service and limit teachers’ right to strike, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said, dismissing opposition from the ruling party’s union allies.

Teachers, nurses and other state workers went on strike for 20 days in 2010, closing schools and disrupting hospital services, to secure a 7.5 percent wage increase and a 60 percent increase in housing allowances. The deal followed nine months of talks and compared with an average inflation rate of 4.3 percent that year.

President Jacob Zuma has asked a team of government officials to improve communication with teachers and avoid confrontations that end in strikes, Motshekga, 58, said in an interview yesterday in Pretoria, the capital. Limiting the right to strike will probably require changes to the law, she said.

“Teaching and health should not be treated like these other professions,” Motshekga said. “They are, for me, very essential services. There are sensitivities about the profession which should limit how far people who enter that profession should be allowed to go, because there are situations which are extremely detrimental if they have all the full rights.”

World Ranking

The government of Africa’s biggest economy is struggling to improve an education system that disadvantaged the black majority during white rule that ended in 1994. South Africa’s mathematics and science schooling was ranked last of 148 countries in a survey by the World Economic Forum this year, and was ahead of Yemen and Libya in an assessment of the total education system.

Final-year pass rates have increased every year since 2009, the year in which Motshekga took office, following six successive years of declines. A skills shortage has contributed to a dearth in investment, undermining South Africa’s efforts to reduce its one-in-four unemployment rate.

With 85 percent of Motshekga’s budget going on salaries, she said she has too little funding to improve teaching facilities and equipment to make work easier for teachers, who also remained undertrained.

Teachers who want to strike should be forced to keep a skeleton staff to ensure lessons can at least partially continue, said Motshekga, who taught in the Johannesburg township of Soweto in the 1980s and today leads the ruling African National Congress’s Women’s League.

Protest Rights

“If teachers are going to strike, you can’t leave students on their own,” she said. “We don’t take all their rights, because teachers have a right to protest, but we must protect the children also.”

The South African Democratic Teachers Union, a 230,000-member union that supports Zuma’s ANC, said essential services only apply to those where people’s lives are at risk if workers go on strike.

“We have gone on strike many a time,” Sadtu Deputy General Secretary Nkosana Dolop said in a phone interview from Johannesburg yesterday. “There is no learner that dies. People fought and people died for these rights. We will challenge everybody through all means available to make sure that our rights as workers are not trampled upon.”

Some South African carmakers, beverage producers and mining companies are paralyzed by ongoing wage strikes, costing the economy billions of rand in income. Anglo American Platinum Ltd., the largest producer of the metal, will stand idle for a fourth day today as members of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union protest proposals to cut 3,300 jobs.

This encourages teachers to strike, Motshekga said.

“We have this volatile South African environment which impacts on everybody,” Motshekga said. “As a country we haven’t really settled completely. It’s not only affecting education.”

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