Picture: THE HERALD
Picture: THE HERALD

SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) general secretary Mugwena Maluleke makes a few valid points, even if he undermines his message by invoking a mysterious, undefined "evil".

In his response (published today, opposite) to the FM editorial of January 10, Maluleke says that a 2016 ministerial task team investigation of the alleged selling of teaching posts found no evidence of clear wrongdoing on the part of the union.

That is right. But Maluleke neglects to mention that the task team did find evidence of Sadtu being in "de facto control" of the public education system in six of SA’s nine provinces.

It is only in the Free State, the Northern Cape and the Western Cape that the education departments were still in control.

And yet Maluleke says that "no evidence" was found of this control. If Sadtu members want to make sweeping claims about that report, I recommend they read it first.

Sadtu can’t ‘run’ education in SA and then divorce itself from its outcomes

But the seven-member task team, chaired by Dr John Volmink, went further. It concluded that Sadtu was able to "capture" those provinces by using "undue influence at different stages of the appointments process to ensure that its candidates are appointed". And "by holding out the possibility for its prominent members to receive opportunity to achieve high office in the department, parliament and the cabinet".

In other words, Sadtu became so powerful that it could easily put its members’ interests ahead of the country’s. In having a hand in appointing teachers, principals and officials, it could push its members into positions of power — regardless of ability.

Volmink’s report didn’t buy what it called Sadtu’s "bland and blameless version of itself". It pointed out that it "should not be a union’s function to be both referee and player".

Sadtu makes an ill-defined argument that were President Cyril Ramaphosa to implement changes in the education sector, it would strip away the constitutional right to equality, dignity and fair labour practices. It’s a stretch, at best. Maluleke doesn’t say how that would happen.

Maluleke then argues that Sadtu’s members performed well over the past year, and that schools where its members are in the majority continued to improve.

But if the union wants to own any successes in the wider education sphere, it must then also own the failures. These include the findings of the 2015 "Trends in International Mathematics & Science Study", which found that 61% of grade 5 pupils in SA were not able to do basic mathematics. And the union should also own the results of the 2016 "Progress in International Reading Literacy Study", which found that 78% of grade 4 children did not understand what they were reading.

Sadtu can’t claim the success and disown the failures. And it can’t, for lack of another word, "run" education in SA and then divorce itself from its outcomes.

It looks like the tide may be turning against Sadtu. When Ramaphosa launched the ANC’s election manifesto, he made it clear that he wanted better from public servants, noting how some have "become unresponsive and unaccountable". This chimes with Volmink’s exhaustive report, which pointed out that unions have a "significant impact on the delivery of education", but have become "almost incapable of thinking and acting educationally" because they’re acting mainly to support political movements.

There is precious little evidence that anything has changed in the years since the task team’s report was finished.

Which makes Volmink’s conclusion — that "the present environment is not conducive to the provision of quality education" — all the more poignant.

And SA’s children matter far more than Sadtu’s sensibilities.

Claasen is a veteran FM writer