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SOUTH AFRICA: Teachers’ Voices Heard in Public Sector Strike

Marshall Patsanza

JOHANNESBURG, Aug 26 2010 (IPS) - South African teachers – along with other public service employees – have embarked on an indefinite strike over wages. The unions are demanding an 8.6 percent wage increase. Government says it cannot afford to offer 1.3 million striking public servants any more than seven percent.

Government schools across South Africa are closed while teachers strike for higher pay. Credit:  John Robinson/IPS

Government schools across South Africa are closed while teachers strike for higher pay. Credit: John Robinson/IPS

With the school year already disrupted by an extended holiday imposed by the World Cup, and less than two months left before matric examinations – the final exams for high school students in South Africa – the strike could have a major impact on education in the country.

The strike affects government schools, with millions of children losing valuable classroom time; it also places strain on parents worried about who will care for children while they are out of school.

William Nxumalo, a Johannesburg high school teacher, told IPS that the government is letting children down, not teachers.

“If the government really cared about the matric students, they would have tried to meet our demands so that the children can be ready for the examinations at the end of the year,” said Nxumalo.

Government’s offer of a seven percent increase, plus a $95 housing allowance, falls short, say union officials who are holding out for an 8.6 percent wage increase and a 1,000 rand ($140) housing allowance. 


In full-page ads in several weekend newspapers, the government made its case: the ministry for basic education said that a newly-qualified teacher enters the system on a basic monthly salary package of 19,000 rand – at roughly $2,500, significantly above the $1,600 average pay for other formally employed South Africans.

The government argues that its offer of seven percent, combined with a previously-agreed 1.5 percent annual increase already nearly matches the strikers’ wage demands.



Unions have rejected the ads as misleading, as the figures include benefits and the government’s current wage offer.

Equal Education (EE), a community and membership-based organisation which advocates for quality and equality in the South African education system, supports the strike, saying that teachers are being short-changed for their services.

“Teachers are not treated as professionals and their services are often undermined, so it is only fair that the teachers’ voices are heard,” Yoliswa Dwane, head of EE’s Policy, Communications and Research Department, told IPS.

“If striking is the only way for them to be heard, then the teachers should take advantage of it.”



The organisation says most teachers have university degrees but do not earn salaries to match their qualifications. By EE’s calculations, teachers on average earn just over $1,000 a month before deductions, which EE deems insufficient where a teacher is a family’s only breadwinner.

EE said the strike highlights the gap between South Africa’s public school system and private schools, where teachers are generally better paid, as well as enjoying the motivation of a more worker-friendly environment.

Private schools are unaffected by the current strike, and almost uniformly outperform government schools in the national examinations that every learner writes.

Public school teachers work in often-challenging circumstances to prepare students despite large class sizes, short staff and under-equipped schools.

The strike comes amid concerns over the quality of education in the country and the poor matric exam pass rates in recent years.

It is not certain when the government and unions will come to an agreement over a wage increase, but the education of the country’s children will suffer until an agreement is reached.

 
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