Eusebius McKaiser

Should teaching be declared an essential service?

2013-01-15 10:06

True story: President Jacob Zuma has started the year with a fascinating thought of his own, and one that was bluntly expressed at that.

On CNBCA's Political Exchange on Monday evening he told the host, Karima Brown, that teaching should be declared an essential service if that is the only way to ensure that wayward teachers do not compromise our children's education. But should we hasten to agree with the president just because education really is a crucial determinant of whether you will flourish later in life? I think not. Here's why.

A matter of life and death?

Most people are not aware that "essential service" is a legal concept. It refers to a service that can affect whether or not you live or die depending whether that service is provided. Emergency medical services are an obvious example: if those paramedics go on strike during the festive season you may die at an accident scene. Your life is literally at stake.

The concept is narrowly defined for good reason. Public servants are workers with general labour rights that should not be easily limited or taken away. There has to be a balance struck between public interest and labour law. And, as socially important as education is, education is not a matter of life and death. It is a matter of good quality lives versus poor quality lives. No one wants to live an impoverished life, materially or otherwise. But that desire to live well, to flourish, cannot reasonably be regarded as a matter of life and death.

The legal concept was invented to isolate a specific category of services so existentially crucial to our lives that they should not be subject to the full possible labour pressures workers are entitled to use as bargaining tools, such as striking.

Slippery slope

There are three other big problems with the president's idea. First, it will lead to a slippery slope of reasonably similar demands about other socio-economic rights. One can also make the case that housing and water are crucial determinants of whether you will live a good quality life. Should we not also therefore limit the labour rights of those public servants, especially at local and provincial government level, who are responsible for housing and water provision? Again, a tempting response is to say that the entire cluster of socio-economic rights should be declared essential.

But that would be a flagrant failure to balance workers' rights with citizens' desire to never experience tardy housing and water provision. Yet, if the state fails to deliver these services, that is fundamentally a political failure rather than a legal failure. We should in the first instance exhaust political mechanisms of accountability.

Of course constitutional supremacy means we should take the state to court when appropriate. But notice that Zuma's suggestion here indicts specific public servants and not so much the leadership within the state. That's surely misdirected?

Secondly, it is simply lazy to try and deal with education challenges with a blunt legal concept. In many ways, as popular as this suggestion might prove, it is actually a crafty way of trying to pass the political buck onto teachers. Don't get me wrong: of course teachers' unions have for too long politicised education and it is timely that the president should be willing to become unpopular among these unions. But the long shopping list of obvious things that government can do better within the education sector has nothing to do with teaching not being an essential service.

Only part of the problem

Think about mud schools in the Eastern Cape; the textbook saga in Limpopo; the unequal resource split between the poorer state schools and the wealthier ones; the endless curriculum experiments; the failure to draw up clear key performance indicators for heads of school; the failure to already bring back school inspectors and teachers colleges; and much more that we could add to the list. Political principals like Zuma should not get away with lack of leadership on these issues by framing the education debate narrowly as a fight against politicised teachers' unions. That is only a part of the overall problem.

Finally, it is important to realise what declaring teaching an essential service cannot guarantee. It cannot guarantee that a teacher is more conscientious about their role; that they take all opportunities available to them to improve their teaching skill; and certainly that would not turn mud structures into brick ones or ensure textbooks reach schools timeously if at all.

Do not be seduced by the colloquial meaning of ‘essential’. Rather keep the political pressure on political principals to start picking the low hanging fruit that could result in better education for our children. The ‘essential services’ debate is a lazy and crafty red herring.

- McKaiser’s book A Bantu in my Bathroom is now available from all leading bookstores. Ebooks can be bought from and epub and pdf versions can be bought on-line from Exclusives Books and

- Eusebius McKaiser is an associate at the Wits Centre for Ethics. Follow @eusebius on Twitter.

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