‘OUR INPUT on reopening schools during lockdown is being ignored’ say South African unions.
Two of the country’s biggest unions have indicated that they will not support any decision by the council of ministers to discuss the reopening of schools.
The council’s meeting on Monday, hosted by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, included education MECs from all nine provinces.
South Africa’s Executive Council consists of the Premier and five to ten other members, who have the title ‘Member of the Executive Council’ (MEC) who are appointed by the Premier from amongst the members of the provincial legislature – he or she can also dismiss them.
The meeting was meant to map a way forward for the rest of the school year, which has been adversely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. But unions have already expressed concern over the fact that their input has been ignored.
The first to lash out at the department was the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU). Its general secretary, Mugwena Maluleke, said the consultation Motshekga had with them was merely a formality.
Maluleke warned: ‘We were consulted, but the department comes to consult for formality, not alternative ideas. The provincial departments are doing their own thing, and nothing we discuss at national level makes any difference.
‘For the reopening of schools, the departments must fully comply with regulations and occupational health and safety. None of the provinces are ready.’
He further expressed dismay at all the plans the minister and the MECs were making, saying they appeared unconcerned about the safety of learners and teachers.
The SADTU general secretary said: ‘What we have observed is that the employer is worried about the school calendar, and not the safety and lives of the workers.
‘It’s like the workers are commodities and in abundance, and if one dies, another resource is expanded. We are in an era where the work of workers is a priority but not their health or lives.
‘So we have called on the national department to rein in the provinces, but that won’t happen because the provinces are in competition and the workers are expendable commodities.’
Alan Thompson, president of the National Teachers’ Union (NATU), said after their meeting with Motshekga last week, they were unhappy as they had hoped exhaustive and meaningful discussions would be held.
He said NATU was disappointed to find that the employer wanted to ‘shove its position down their throats’, and brush aside all their suggestions as well as wanting them to ‘rubber-stamp what has been already decided on’.
Thompson said: ‘Quite clearly, in our circumstances, more specific information should have been made regarding schools’ infrastructural readiness: repairs, maintenance, required extra spaces, extra teachers – both newly recruited and substitute, etc.
‘The all-important matter of physical distancing cannot be compromised if we have to win the war on Covid-19.
‘It is suspicious that all the provincial education departments are quiet about this. It could lead to speculation that they are in a conundrum.
‘We insist that we will never allow overcrowded classes to be taught and that we want only one child per desk.’
He said NATU would not allow children to suffer because the Department of Basic Education (DBE) was unwilling or unable to meet its obligations.
DBE spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga said they had met the unions but he could not disclose what had taken place.
The South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU) in the North West province also issued a statement on Monday.
It ‘noted with serious concern, the manner in which the Department of Education in the province is dealing with the issue of Covid-19 and preparations towards the reopening of schools.
‘Our concern is, amongst others, informed by the circulation of the two Circulars i.e. Circular 21/2020 and the one entitled “Cleaning Campaign: Re-opening of Schools” which were released without even consulting with the union.
‘As the union, we are highly disturbed, disappointed, dissatisfied and annoyed by the behaviour of the Department as these Circulars clearly show that the Department does not care about the wellbeing and the lives of its employees in the North West.
‘It is more disturbing that the Department expects School Management Team’s (SMT’s) and School Governing Bodies (SGB’s) to report to schools being aware that they have not complied with the prescripts of Occupational Health and Safety Act (Act no 85 of 1993), which states that “No worker should enter the workplace before the workplace is thoroughly cleaned”.
‘The Departmental Circular 15/2020, amongst others, states that 2.5 “clean surfaces and shared equipment on regular basis and 2.11: Disinfect all offices and schools before employees resume duty”. We are now surprised that the department has opted to disregard their own directives and those issued by the Department of Employment and Labour.
‘It is our firm belief that the Department’s call for the School Management Team’s (SMT’s) to report for work on Monday is premature and risky. The Department has not taken into account all the safety precautions in compliance with the OHS Act and the Covid-19 regulations. We call on the department to respond to the following questions:-
- Are all the schools cleaned and disinfected?
- Who is supposed to clean the schools and offices and who is going to pay for the service provided?
- Who is going to test all the employees who will be entering the schools and offices when employees return to work?
- Were all schools which were vandalised repaired?
- Do all schools and offices have running water and safe toilets?
- Are the permits issued for SMT members outside the province and other officials?
‘We have also noted the fact that our members, who are office based employees are expected to act as health professionals. Some Districts in our province have released Circulars on the training of “all employees” for screening. The question is are the conditions of service of our members changed? Are they now health professionals?
‘These are some of the questions that need to be answered before our members go back to schools.
‘It is therefore on that basis that as the union we reject the two Circulars and their contents and strongly advise our members not to report to schools on Monday the 18th May 2020 until the union has evidence on the readiness of the Department.
What surprises further is that the department on the 9th May 2020 issued a circular 16/2020 to all stakeholders indicating that “A preliminary review of the state of readiness for school reopening and the related risk assessment show that as a Department we have not yet met the set precondition to contain the transmission of Covid-19 in schools due to circumstances beyond control’.
The SADTU statement went on: ‘In view of the above, we wish to advise that SMT’s should not report for duty on 11th May 2020 until further notice.
‘Since the last date of the circular, we are not convinced that the Department has lived up to their promises because they have opted not to take key stakeholders into confidence about their level of readiness.
‘Lastly, we have noted with disappointment that there are officials and some school principals who are summoning workers to condemn the behaviour of some of our members who maintain that offices and schools are not yet safe. This is rather inhumane and insensitive as all of us have to be cautious and act according to the law.
‘Be safe and stay home. Wash hands regularly with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Wear a mask when in public spaces and maintain social distance.
‘Education Workers Unite! Stand for your rights and protect your health.’
- Meanwhile, the Western Cape provincial Health Department is investigating the death of a Khayelitsha Day Hospital (KDH) healthcare worker who allegedly tested positive for Covid-19.
Household aid Nolufefe Mdumata passed away at a private hospital early on Sunday after being in ICU for several days.
Health Department spokesperson for the Khayelitsha and Eastern Substructure, Sithembiso Magubane, said the Department was awaiting confirmation of the cause of death.
Magubane said: ‘A Khayelitsha Hospital staff member who was admitted to a private hospital has passed on. The department would like to express our sincere and deepest condolences to the family.
‘We are awaiting confirmation on the cause of death and (this) will be communicated as soon as we have confirmed it.’
National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU) regional secretary Zukisani Mabengu said Mdumata had tested positive for the virus.
Recently, two Tygerberg nurses, Ntombizakithi Ngidi and Petronella Benjamin, died after being diagnosed with Covid-19.
The Western Cape remains the country’s epicentre, with nine more deaths reported, bringing the death toll to 156, with a total of 9,246 confirmed cases and 3,521 recoveries.
NEHAWU regional secretary Mabengu said: ‘We are deeply concerned by the death of yet another health care worker while more are testing positive. We extend our deepest condolences to all the families, friends and colleagues at this time and we honour their service to the people.
‘We have raised the issue of personal protective equipment (PPE) that is not being adequately used at health facilities and how health workers are being unfairly treated and threatened with dismissal if they report being sick or want to raise some issues.’
He said the union had encouraged its members to refuse to work if they were without proper PPE.
This came as healthcare worker union, Hospersa, criticised the provincial health department over alleged occupational health safety violations that they said were taking place in health facilities in the province.
The union said healthcare workers in some facilities had downed tools, demanding better protection against the deadly virus.
Hospersa provincial secretary, Marthenique Marinus said: ‘For the province to have a fighting chance, the safety of health workers needs to be prioritised as they are the real foot soldiers against Covid-19.’