In probably one of the most telling accounts of the labour union’s one dimensional and catastrophic rational, Cosatu’s leader, Zwelinzima Vavi today spoke out against the government’s plan to essentialise the education sector following the state of the nation address yesterday.
In his sona address, President Zuma had boldly spoken about the need for the South African society to ‘elevate education as an apex priority’ by ‘declaring education as an essential services sector.’ He then added that, ‘by saying education is an essential service we are not (sic) taking away the constitutional right of teachers as workers, such as the right to strike’ rather it meant that the ‘education sector and society as a whole must (sic) take education seriously than is happening currently’
Now what could be so wrong with a move that ensures the right of children so receive education whilst simultaneously protecting their service providers and in some cases their parents, the right to air their labour grievances?
The Cosatu leader however reasons that declaring education an essential service will curb the strikes by teachers because of the Labour Act that protects essential services from wanton strikes.
Well Mr Vavi, that’s actually the point; teachers cannot strike willy-nilly every other year and systematically plunge the education sector in further crisis. There are other dispute solving mechanisms that are not zero sum in nature but can actually benefit all the parties involved!
What is particularly poignant about Mr Vavi’s reaction is not necessarily that he implicitly suggests that strikes are the only modus operandi of labour dispute resolution but his implicit valorization of teachers’ rights to strike over the right of children to have education. Such rational is not only catastrophic to the society but to the teachers themselves whose lifestyle’s cannot be radically improved by their perennial demand of 10% increase but can be radically improved by teaching their students and or children so that they acquire education which ultimately leads to better lives for the teachers.
The problem with the rhetoric of labour rights that is consistently being churned out by Cosatu especially on an instance like this one is that it creates a fallacy in society and particularly amongst teachers about the erosion of a constitutional right. This fallacy immediately robs society the chance to effectively debate the merits of the issue at hand: education. Instead focus is shifted to the emotionally and politically charged conversation on the infringement of workers’ rights.
I do not imply that teachers should not have labour rights. On the contrary. I feel that if society at large (including teachers), takes a step back and think about education they may begin to see that declaring education an essential services actually yields better results and it creates a space where more socio-economic rights can be achieved than placing undue emphasis on a right that is entrenching labour further into poverty.
Cosatu has deceived our parents to think that their constitutional right to strike is more important than the right of the younger generation to be educated so as to ensure the continued sustainability of future generations. It is not a coincidence that schools are closed even during service delivery strikes or strikes by other sectors that are not education. This scenario is not assisting our parents at all, neither is it assisting the youth.
For its continued survival and the attainment of its popularity, Cosatu has heavily relied on unskilled to semi-skilled labour. Whilst there is nothing wrong in protecting the labour rights of this group as it is where the majority of our parents lie, Cosatu is impeding on the youth’s agency hence social mobility is curbed leading to the systemic reproduction of unskilled or semi-skilled labour due to lack of education.
The poignancy of this reproduction of masses of uneducated to semi-educated youth is that it entrenches poverty in the life of a teacher who could have made a difference to his/her own life by educating the uneducated. The danger to Cosatu is that once more and more youth are adequately educated, they will begin to see the massive harm Cosatu is impacting on its own constituency. Cosatu, the champion of workers’ rights is in this instance their worst enemy as it is deceptively pushing them to settle for crumbles when they could in fact become the providers of the cake.
In today’s capitalist society, only skill and innovation attracts capital and ultimately better living conditions. It is imperative that we acknowledge the need to better ourselves particularly by embracing education as it rewards highly than the immediate gains of strikes. After all, ‘all successful societies have one thing in common – they invested in education.’