South Africa’s teachers are highly unionized, and the past has shown that unions do not hesitate to announce strikes, even at very inopportune times.

The African National Congress plans to declare education an essential service to prevent further teacher strikes, which have been seen as a contributing factor to the country’s poor level of education. While governing bodies welcome the step, the Congress of South African Trade Unions condemned the efforts, saying it would curtail the constitutional rights of teachers.

In 2010, South African teachers gained inglorious international popularity when they started to strike just weeks before year-end exams. Thousands of students were left alone, shortly before one of the most important stages of their lives, in a country in which half of the youth remain jobless. Even though the country’s education budget, in relation to its whole budget, is way above the international average, education evaluations reveal disastrous results regularly. In 2011, national assessment results were published for the first time, with shocking results. The national average mark in literacy among grade threes was 35%, and among grade sixes only 30%. Although 2012’s results were significantly better, the fast progress was considered to be quite incredulous by many observers. In terms of Basic Education and Health, South Africa ranked number 131, placing the nation in the bottom 9% of the list of 142 countries.

It has often been said that the country’s teachers play a significant role in deteriorating education in the country. South Africa’s teachers are highly unionized, and the past has shown that unions do not hesitate to announce strikes, even at very inopportune times. Making education an essential service, as planned by the African National Congress, would rescind the teacher’s right to strike. The unions, including the Congress of South African Trade Unions, thus oppose the idea, feeling that it would undermine constitutional rights.

So the question is: what is more important, the teacher’s right to strike, or the insurance that the country’s children always have access to education. There are not many sectors which are as irreplaceable as the education sector, although the police and health services are worthy of mention. If those services would fall into strike, there would be no other institution to pick up the slack. Statistics have shown that out of 386 000 teachers in the country, about 40 000 do not go to work every day, due to illness, training, or other reasons. In any other industry, that rate would be unacceptable. So what are the options?

One is to force the teachers to stop striking, by declaring education essential. However, it seems unlikely that education will really be made essential. Unlike the aforementioned health and police services, education is certainly not a matter of life and dead, at least not in the short-term. But on the other hand, letting teachers continue to use the country’s children to enforce higher salaries does not seem desirable either, especially considering the country’s high educational deficits.

A compromise, however, could be considered; collective agreements between teachers and the state would be concluded for periods of several years, and automatically adjusted if inflation grew at an unexpected rate. During those periods, teachers would be prohibited from interrupting their teaching for strikes, thus not denying education from the country’s children. Strike actions would only be possible, but only before collective bargaining rounds, and not shortly before exams. Teachers would not be completely excluded from the constitutional right to protest, but undisturbed teaching over critical periods would be ensured.

Fabian Scherer