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Teachers, support workers, and communities should decide how and when schools open
Statement by WASP
In response to the ministerial announcement by Angie Motshekga that schools will reopen from 1 June, a majority of existing teacher unions SADTU, NAPTOSA, PEU, NATU, and SAOU, have released a joint statement instructing their members to not enter schools that are unsafe. According to the Department of Basic Education (DBE), all school staff are expected to report to duty on 25 May.
Capitalism at the root of crisis in education
South Africa’s education system is in crisis at all levels – from early childhood development to higher education. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how our public sector institutions have been gutted through under investment, privatisation, and neglect. However, the root of this crisis is the capitalist system. The ANC’s wholehearted embrace of capitalism and the adoption of a neoliberal agenda in all spheres, including education, has eroded any hope that they will provide quality education for the vast majority.
We have a two-tier public school system, made up of fee-paying and non-fee-paying schools. In addition to this there are “independent” (private) schools, some of which also receive state funding. The state funding for schools is based on a quintile system that has been proven through multiple years of research to be completely inadequate in assessing the needs of schools. It has served to further entrench poverty in schools that serve poor and working class communities, and protect the wealth of schools in the top tier.
In 21.4% of public schools, there are more than 36 learners to an educator according to the 2019 EMIS School Realities report. Overcrowding of classrooms has severe impacts on both teachers, who cannot give individual attention to learners and struggle with classroom management and workloads, as well as the learners, who can fall through the cracks as learning difficulties, mental and physical health issues go unnoticed. Currently more than half of learners starting in Gr R do not make it to Gr 12.
Ultimately this same government has shown its complete disregard for the lives of the people it supposedly serves: it took the drowning of a learner in a pit latrine, and another learner killed by the collapsing walls of one, for the government to commit to eradicating the remaining 3800+ pit latrines still in our schools. Enacting austerity budgets over decades has resulted in schools that have no running water, a lack of heating and electricity, insufficient classrooms, crumbling infrastructure, burgeoning unemployment amongst qualified teachers, and lack of resources for teaching and learning generally.
Not safe for staff and learners
In these existing conditions, combined with increasing numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths, the push to reopen schools is all the more reckless. It exposes just how divorced the decision-makers in the DBE and the Provincial Departments of Education (PDEs) are from the reality schools face daily. Teachers, support workers, parents, guardians and learners however know better, and they are rightfully frightened at the prospect of reopening schools.
Without an immediate increase in budget and staffing, the empty reassurance that class sizes will be smaller in the DBE’s approach to reopen schools has no real meaning to workers in education, who are acutely aware of the shortcomings in our schools. However, an even bigger question is where will the PPE and sanitary measures come from, when our very hospitals are struggling to secure the same?
Schools as a capitalist tool
Those supporting and even pushing for the reopening of schools reveal clearly that schools under a capitalist system are not primarily for learning to take place. Many say schools must reopen because parents must go to work, children rely on schools for feeding schemes, and that the budget cannot afford a suspended academic year. Schools, just like workplaces, are arenas of class struggle – they are a valuable tool for the capitalist class. In this respect they primarily provide childcare services so that bosses can demand longer hours from the workers they exploit for profits. Additionally, schools provide the skills for an efficient and educated workforce, where the vast majority is trained to serve the ever-increasing wealth of the rich, instead of nurturing individual talents and skills.
For the working class, schools provide essential social interaction between peers and teachers to equip them with an understanding of the world and natural environment, and vital skills to meet human needs on a sustainable basis. Contrary to the class prejudices against teachers and learners in poor schools spewed by Helen Zille and her racist crowd, education is vital to the working class. Our predecessors fought and won it as a right through brutal class struggle on the foundations of ending child labour. The academic freedom for critical thinking and inquiry about capitalism, how to organise against it, and other progressive elements of the education system exist because of concessions made by the bosses and the ruling class. In South Africa these were wrestled as part of the struggle against bantu education and the apartheid regime.
To ensure that schools become primarily centres for teaching and learning, instead of shouldering the social burdens created by the capitalist system, we have to make bold demands that take us forward and address the root causes of poverty and inequality. Although fears about lack of feeding schemes for some of the most vulnerable in our society are understandable, this pandemic has shown us that we must demand and struggle for a humane post-COVID-19 world. We cannot settle for “working with what we have”.
Build for a National Stay Away
WASP supports the call for a stay away by the teachers’ unions. We call on all unions and union federations to support and adopt this important call. WASP will also be campaigning for communities and parents/guardians to keep learners away from schools. Where possible we will organise pickets outside schools and utilize other creative methods to protest this decision and show solidarity. We are calling on SAFTU and the Working Class Summit to make a call and organise for a National Stay Away on the 1st of June 2020. There is a groundswell of support for this action amongst workers and communities. If successful, this can serve as a basis for a General Strike to unite the struggle against reopening of schools with struggles in other industries for PPEs, against job losses and in communities battling COVID-19.
Months of patient engagement and advice from unions, education and health experts, parents, guardians and learners, has not convinced this government to address the current crisis scientifically. Instead, it is determined to risk the lives of school-based workers, learners, and their communities – effectively the whole of South Africa.
The DBE and the PDEs have forced workers in the education sector to take direct action in the form of a stay away. This action must be supported by the communities that they serve. Such working class solidarity and united action has the potential to not only halt the reopening of schools in order to save lives, but change our dysfunctional education system completely.
Struggle for a better education system
We can win real gains by demanding the following as well:
- The immediate construction of new schools and classrooms to accommodate class sizes not exceeding 20 learners to pandemic-proof schools, as well as updating and installing quality sanitation at all schools. Mass investment in a true public works programme with workers employed on full public sector salaries and benefits. No tenderpreneurs!
- Mass employment of currently unemployed qualified teachers to accommodate smaller class sizes.
- Utilize the time schools are closed to further train and develop all education staff, and overhaul the inflexible curriculum. Unemployed teachers and trained graduates must be employed on full public sector salaries and benefits to immediately work on translation and development of teaching and learning materials that facilitate home language instruction at all levels of basic education.
- Employment of sufficient support staff: cleaners, maintenance workers, lab assistants, tech assistants, admin etc. on a permanent basis with full salaries and benefits.
- Permanent provision of dedicated school transport that can accommodate social distancing and be sanitized regularly.
- Employment of at least one nurse, one social worker and one counsellor for every school, depending on the size of the school. Physical and psychological wellbeing are essential for learning and teaching to take place.
- Full time, insourced security stationed at schools at all times to prevent the immense vandalisation taking place.
- Free workplace or community-based childcare for all who are working.
- No person should go hungry when schools are closed – sufficient food and basic necessities to be distributed to all communities and households in need immediately and after the pandemic.
- Nationalise all private schools, abolish the fee and no-fee system in public schools. All school funding to be centralized and distributed according to need. All school facilities (fields, sports halls, auditoriums, etc) to be shared between all schools as needed. This system must be overseen by a committee democratically elected from school workers, parents and guardians, and student representatives. Full-time administrators must be paid the average salary of a skilled worker, and must be open to recall at any time.
In order to win these demands and more, we must fight for the nationalisation of the mines, large-scale agriculture, banks, pharmaceutical companies, and other big businesses. These must be put under democratic control and management by workers and communities. When production is planned according to the needs of the many, not the profits of the few elites, we can ensure schools and the communities they serve have all the resources they need. Bold demands such as these lay a foundation for building a more equal and quality education system in South Africa. They also address broader socio-economic issues, such as unemployment and precarious employment, and can serve as a transitional bridge towards a socialist society free from exploitation.
International and working class solidarity
In the past three years we have witnessed workers in education rise up against austerity measures across the world. The crisis of capitalism in our schools is the same all over the world: overworked teachers, under resourced and overcrowded schools. #RedForEd in Arizona, USA started with a 75 000 strong teacher strike, which prompted and inspired more industrial action across the US.
Across the world last year, there have been similar nation-wide teachers’ strikes, in places like New Zealand and Zimbabwe. In the UK, schools are set to reopen on June 1st as well, with unions calling on education workers not to report to duty. We fully support our comrades across the world resisting the push from capitalist governments who shamelessly throw the working class under the bus. We further call for cross-border solidarity between all workers resisting the bosses’ greed during this pandemic. The working class, and our struggle for socialism, is international.
It should be up to workers at schools, both teaching and non-teaching staff, as well as the parents and guardians of learners to decide whether the schools in South Africa can safely be reopened. All schools must have an SRC elected by learners, which must also have input in all aspects of reopening of schools. Workers in all industries have to be the decision-makers on the so-called “reopening” of the economy. We cannot put that decision into the hands of a government that is heavily influenced by the interests of big business and their profits, instead of the lives and wellbeing of the majority.
Statement by WASP
In 1894, socialist Rosa Luxemburg wrote an article on the origins of May Day . It stated: “The first of May demanded the introduction of the eight-hour day. But even after this goal was reached, May Day was not given up. As long as the struggle of the workers against the bourgeoisie and the ruling class continues, as long as all demands are not met, May Day will be the yearly expression of these demands.”
The working class in South Africa will once again be joining workers the world over in commemorating May Day, an international workers day, as they have done every year on the 1st of May, for over a century. This year, May Day will be commemorated in the midst of great difficulties and under restrictions not seen since the collapse of apartheid in 1994. The curfews and prohibitions of public gatherings mean that we are likely to have a May Day without the mass demonstrations and rallies that have become part of the proud tradition of the working class and the trade union movement the world over.
May Day during the COVID-19 pandemic
The challenges facing the workers movement this May Day, however, are fundamentally different to those imposed by previous regimes. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented both the capitalist system and the working class with grave challenges. Under capitalism, the pandemic has aggravated the economic recession due to lockdown restrictions, which have shut down the commanding heights of the economy and virtually halted international trade – a driving force of both the world and the South African economies. Ramaphosa’s plan has laid bare the class programme of the ANC government in this crisis. The state is bailing out the bosses with the plundering of the public treasury, and offering only pitiful relief for the working class impoverished by brutal austerity of the whole neoliberal period. It is clear that the state is offloading the burden of the pandemic and economic crises onto the working class.
The cruel intentions of the ruling class are exemplified in its stubborn refusal to redirect the productive capacity of society for production of essentials in the fight to combat the spread of the pandemic ando combat hunger. Internationally, the bosses and their running dogs in government refuse to protect workers from infections and the economic devastation of brutal lockdown conditions. We face major escalation in lay-offs, worsening of working conditions, widespread non-payment of workers, and imposition of compulsory leave days to make up for the shutdowns of industries. The opportunistic use of the pandemic to carry out evictions of entrenched land occupations of the landless urban poor, mass retrenchments of EPWP, SAA and many workers, as well as the wrecking of the collective bargaining agreement in the public sector, is a crime against the working class. Even more cruel is the treatment of the heroic healthcare workers who remain on the frontline in spite of this cowardly backstabbing and lack of protective equipment. On publication of this article, 328 healthcare workers have already been infected.
This criminal maneuvering of the ruling class exposes the call for a ‘patriotic national front’ as the calculated deception it is. It also crystallizes the political calculations behind a capitalist strategy for a militarized lockdown. The working class and labour movement need their own strategy. We must respond to the massive lay-offs, business closures, chronic shortage of PPE and the inadequate preventative measures put in place by the capitalist state.
International Workers’ Day has its origins in the struggle for an 8-hour work day. Today we are faced with a deep crisis in the economy. The Treasury estimates a 6,4% contraction in the economy and job losses ranging from 3 to 7 million on top of an existing catastrophic level of 10,3 million unemployed. In these circumstances, May Day acquires ever greater relevance and renewed meaning. The possibilities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution bringing more automation of jobs in a context of growing poverty and inequality, imbue the demand for ‘shared work for all’ with greater urgency. This lockdown has vindicated our analysis that individuals do not need to work 45+ hour days for society to run. The trade union movement must put on the agenda a demand for a reduced working week without loss of income so that jobs can be guaranteed for all. A system where technological innovation spells misery for the majority due to impending job losses is a sick system and should be done away with. WASP has always campaigned for a 30-hour work week. We think this May Day the trade union movement should launch this call. A reduced work week also allows the working class much needed leisure time – to spend on further education, skills development, personal growth, family and social needs.
Furthermore, the transition to Post-COVID-19 quarantines and lockdowns present the opportunity for a Green New Deal along a socialist programme. This will combat Climate Change and can retrain millions of workers whose industries will not survive this combined pandemic and economic crisis. Capitalism is incapable of making this transition on its own, perhaps more in this country than anywhere else. The crushing political domination of South African capitalism by vested interests in the ‘mineral-energy complex’ means that nothing less than a revolutionary mass movement of the working class and youth, armed with a programme to liquidate capitalism and transform the economy on a socialist basis, can carry out such a green revolution.
The trade union movement, COSATU, SAFTU, FEDUSA and NACTU should use this May Day to boldly put forward this revolutionary agenda and orient the whole working class for the class war that will prove essential to advancing it.
A Fighting Strategy
In the light of urgent challenges facing the workers in healthcare and across the economy, WASP believes that the trade union movement should also use this May Day to develop campaigns for:
- The provision of PPE including repurposing of factories for production of protective gear, masks and sanitizers; provision of safe transport as well as hazard allowance for essential workers. .
- The enforcement of the Public Sector Collective Bargaining Council Agreement. All trade union federations to join the COSATU dispute in the bargaining council and build a United Public Service Workers Front to organize a Public Sector Strike if resolution is not reached.
- The end to outsourcing and a fight for permanent employment of all precarious workers of decent wages especially community healthcare, agriculture, food industry and retail and other frontline industries.
- Rolling mass action and organized occupations to fight job losses in SAA, EDCON, EPWP, in mining and across the economy,
- An end to militarized operations and anti-democratic authoritarian measures violating the rights to organize and protest. Solidarity action, food distribution and essential services as well as enforcement of social distancing in working class communities must be done through independent working class organization.
- A general strike to unite the whole working class in the struggle for these demands as well as to ensure access to food, water and quality public healthcare for all.
- The nationalization of the private health industry. We must organise and struggle for all businesses under threat of liquidation to be nationalized under democratic workers’ control.
WASP will be joining virtual rallies being organized by SAFTU and COSATU. We will be using the platforms provided to campaign for these demands and a revolutionary strategy in the fight against COVID-19 and the economic storm that is rapidly forming before our eyes. We stand in solidarity with the workers and communities across the world, such as distribution and retail workers in the USA and Ireland, rent strikers internationally, healthcare workers in South Africa and Zimbabwe, who are planning and taking bold steps in strike and other protest actions to demand safe working conditions and a better world for all.
WASP fights for these demands, as part of a transitional programme towards a socialist society. We believe this is the only way to reach a world free from exploitation, where May Day will become a celebration of heroic workers. As Rosa Luxemburg concluded optimistically in her article, “when better days dawn, when the working class of the world has won its deliverance then too humanity will probably celebrate May Day in honor of the bitter struggles and the many sufferings of the past.” We hope you take the step to get organised and join WASP or one of our international sister organisations of the International Socialist Alternative this May Day.