Teachers’ unions mount countrywide campaign to roll back school opening in South Africa

The Educators Union of South Africa (EUSA) alleges that money meant for PPEs for students and teachers is being looted through corrupt tenders given at exaggerated prices by the department of basic education and that they are being sent back to schools in an unsafe manner

July 20, 2020 by Pavan Kulkarni
Principals, teachers and learners picket along the M5 to protest against the reopening of schools in Cape Town on July 2, 2020. Photo: Gallo Images/ Brenton Geach

As the number of COVID-19 cases among students and teachers in South Africa continues to rise, teachers’ unions have mounted a country-wide campaign for re-closure of schools in South Africa. As a part of this campaign, the Educators Union of South Africa (EUSA) has begun to organize teachers and students on daily hour-long picket lines outside schools. 

Many of its members are also boycotting schools and holding demonstrations to protest against the government’s disregard for the lives of students and teachers. The government started a phased reopening of schools last month. 

However, no significant academic progress has been made since classes were resumed. Over a month into the reopening, “education is not actually continuing because schools are closing almost every week,” EUSA’s president Kabelo Mahlobogwane told Peoples Dispatch.

“Almost all schools have had disruptions. They had to close for more than a week because of a COVID-19 case in the campus. We are already behind our curriculum. So when they reopen, there is not even a plan for them to catch up,” he added.

The union insinuated that basic education minister Angie Motshekga may have a business interest in keeping the schools open. It pointed out that the minister’s husband, Mathole Motshekga, is the owner of several factories manufacturing PPEs and sanitizers in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. He also allegedly owns the Kara Heritage Institute which publishes books used in basic education in South Africa. 

The union has also claimed there has been rampant corruption in the tenders and contracts, worth hundreds of millions of South African rands, that have been given out by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) for suppliers to deliver PPEs, sanitizers, disinfectants and water tanks to schools.  

Mahlobogwane claims that the prices of these products supplied to schools are being heavily exaggerated. The money meant to ensure the safety of the pupils and teachers is thus being looted.

According to the union, the PPE products have been ordered at exaggerated prices for grades 7 to 12. The DBE ordered 1,982,944 cloth face masks at the National Treasury-recommended price of R25 per piece. This mask, the union maintains, can be ordered in bulk at the price of R6.50 per piece.

12,400 face-shields, which cost R24 a piece, were ordered at R108 per piece. 18,200 thermometers were ordered at a unit price of R2,527, while it could be bought at R750, EUSA claims.

“In another case a water tank that costs R5000 was given a budget of R171,000 Rands,” Mahlobogwane said. Officials have allegedly claimed that this price includes installation costs. 

“But the price of actually buying one water tank, which costs R5,000, was exaggerated to R28,000. The rest was said to be for installation,” he said, adding that the tank was not even installed.

The quality of these products has also come under question. Dispatch Live reported last week that “Tests conducted on sanitizers that were used by an Eastern Cape school where 204 staff and pupils tested positive for Covid-19 indicate that its alcohol content was 57.6% – far below the 70% minimum required.”

Many are said to have become millionaires instantly through such corrupt contracts. Mahlobogwane added with regret that while this looting is underway, in many schools, especially in rural areas and smaller towns, up to 500 pupils are forced to share one single tap due to shortage of water.  

Government reconsidering its decision under unions’ pressure

The union’s persistent campaign has begun to yield results, especially after the WHO issued a strong warning last week against reopening of schools in countries where community transmission remains high.

On July 1, the union had written a letter to the WHO seeking urgent intervention to stop the South African government from continuing with the phased reopening, which began on June 8. Explaining the lack of preparation in the country to safely run schools during the pandemic, the letter stated that more than 20 teachers had died due to COVID-19-related complexities.

According to official figures, as on June 26, “there were 775 schools affected after 1169 teachers and 52 learners contracted the virus,” the letter said. Nevertheless, the government remained undeterred, resuming classes for more grades this month.    

With more countries intending to reopen schools, the WHO finally issued a statement against it on July 13. Health Minister Zweli Mkhize responded by saying, “While we understand what the WHO has said, our approach to the schools is based also on some of the precautionary measures that need to be taken as you go into the schools.” 

He further added, “It is because we know we are going to be co-existing with the virus for the rest of the year and up until next year, so we need to begin to adjust to that kind of life with the virus.”

Unconvinced by this reasoning, the EUSA began a more militant campaign demanding re-closure, with pickets and demonstrations. At its urging, many communities also mobilized to force schools in their areas to shut down, Mahlobogwane claimed. 

Other unions, including the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa (NAPTOSA) and the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) [the largest in the country], joined the call for re-closure of schools. 

With the pressure thus mounting from the unions as well as from parents and the local communities, the government has finally decided to reconsider its decision. “As we speak, there are talks within the DBE. The president has also made a pronouncement that may be the decision must be reviewed,” Mahlobogwane said.