In February 2023, a Soweto school governing body treasurer lamented: “We’re dealing with gangsters in the education department; they’re out to loot schools … We’re calling for help from law enforcement or the Special Investigating Unit.”
In case anyone thinks this was an isolated incident, the 2022 Corruption Watch report, Sound the Alarm, confirmed that education was one of the top three areas in which complaints of corruption were reported by the public the other two were policing and state – owned enterprises. The most common education complaints were misappropriation of resources 45%, maladministration 17%, abuse of authority victimisation of whistleblowers 15%, “sextortion”, bribery for jobs and flouting recruitment processes 12%, and procurement irregularities 11%.
Public awareness of these issues goes back nearly a decade. In April 2014, City Press journalists revealed that a jobs-for-cash racket was being run by members of the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union Sadtu , the largest of its kind in the country. Principal and deputy principal positions were routinely sold for between R30 000 and R45 000 in Kwa-Zulu Natal, while investigations of similar transgressions were under way in Limpopo and North – West.
Sitting principals, the reporters revealed, had been ousted from their posts, under threat of their lives, and replaced by candidates who admitted having secured their positions by paying Sadtu officials. These officials would then coerce sometimes violently members of school governing bodies SGBs to select their preferred candidates. Alternatively, Sadtu members would collaborate in getting favoured individuals on to SGBs to ensure that those who had paid for positions obtained them. There were also accounts of kidnapping and, in one instance, murder.
Despite initially downplaying reports of the scandal, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga eventually took decisive action by appointing a task team to investigate the allegations. Professor John Volmink, then chairperson of Umalusi, the national school certification and accreditation body, was appointed to head the ministerial task team (MTT).
The MTT interviewed district managers, teachers and union officials around the country. Forensic members of the team, drawn from auditing firm Deloitte and the department of justice, followed up on specific allegations. On February 29 2016, the team submitted its 285page report to the minister, who released it publicly on May 21 that year, following sustained pressure from the media, civil society and parents.
Criminal practices identified by the MTT ranged from petty corruption to murder. The rot was so extensive that a top North-West education official reportedly declared that his department had “so many cases of wrongdoing that if he asked the SA Police Service SAPS to follow them up, it would amount to closing down the department”.
The Gauteng department of education reported that it was aware of corrupt procurement and recruitment processes, including maladministration by SGBs when selecting and appointing teachers to top positions. Investigators noted that malpractice had become so normalised that people were living and working in a climate of fear, and that there was a “culture of silence” regarding wrongdoing.
In addition to pervasive corruption, the MTT identified cadre deployment as a major barrier to the effective functioning of the education system. Cadre deployment would later be recognised and defined by the report of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture as the unlawful and unconstitutional practice of appointing loyal “cadres to strategic positions in the state and state employment”.
The authors of the MTT report expressed grave concerns about the “enormous power and influence by a union which seeks to entrench itself repeatedly and inexorably”. It ultimately found that Sadtu was “in de facto charge of the management, administration and priorities of education” in “six and possibly more of the nine provinces”.
Stop and read that again. Its implications are shocking. Sadtu’s control reduces accountability and ultimately misdirects the focus of the entire bureaucracy. Loyalty based appointments have a doubly negative effect: they bring people into the bureaucracy who may not be able to do the job, creating a set of incentives and an institutional culture in which appropriate, capable people are overlooked and become despondent.
Sadtu’s capture of the education system is a key reason for South Africa’s dismal academic performance. When our pupils take international tests, we are ranked as either last or among the bottom three countries. While other countries test grade 4s, we test grade 5s. When they test grade 8s, we test grade 9s. The deficiency has a knock-on effect that can only be closed by upgrading the quality of teachers instructing our children.
The MTT made several important recommendations to address corruption and state capture. These included adopting a zero tolerance stance on corruption, identifying and reporting corrupt individuals to the SAPS for criminal prosecution, protecting whistleblowers from possible reprisals by creating a specialised division in the department, professionalising the bureaucracy by preventing managers from belonging to the same unions as the teachers they supervised, removing the power of SGBs to recommend appointments and renegotiating the observer status unions enjoyed in hiring and promotion processes.
It is now nine years since the jobs-for-cash story broke in City Press and nearly seven years since the release of the MTT report. Volmink told the Centre for Development and Enterprise CDE in September 2019 and again in February 2023 that, as far as he was aware, not a single recommendation from the report had been implemented and not a single individual implicated in wrongdoing had been prosecuted. This was echoed by education experts Dr Nic Spaull and department of basic education researcher Dr Stephen Taylor in July 2022.
Rooting out corruption and ending cadre deployment are the first steps in a process of systemwide education reforms. Sadtu aligned officials who benefit from the status quo must be stopped from blocking attempts to implement such reforms, or they will fail.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST
This is not an argument against unions in the education sector. Teachers are entitled to form unions, as are officials and managers and teachers is obvious. It is also true that many committed and capable individual teachers are members of Sadtu.
What needs to be tackled urgently is the capture of the education system by Sadtu at the expense of both teachers and pupils.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has made anticorruption efforts a priority of his tenure. The graft and state capture exposed in the education sector are as devastating as they are in the rest of government. The groundwork has already been laid by the MTT report. It is time for all of us senior government leaders, civil society, political parties, business, parents and the public at large to openly acknowledge the reality of state capture and corruption in education, and push for measures that will end it. We cannot allow another generation of pupils in our schools to be condemned to an appalling education. South Africa urgently needs education reform that addresses the root causes of systemic dysfunction.
Bernstein is head of the CDE. This article is based on The Silent Crisis: Time to Fix SA’s Schools, a new series of five CDE reports.
Article published by City Press