Creative Education
2012. Vol.3, No.7, 1197-1204
Published Online November 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 1197
Public-Union Sector Politics and the Crisis of Education in
South Africa
Moeketsi Letseka1, Bongani Bantwini2, Ethel King-McKenzie2
1College of Educat i on, University of South Africa, Pretoria, So u t h A f rica
2Bagwell College, Kennesaw State University, Atlanta, USA
Received September 1st, 2012; revised October 4th, 2012; accepted October 14th, 2012
This paper reflects on public-sector unions in South Africa with a view to highlighting teacher unioniza-
tion’s contribution to South Africa’s education crisis. South Africa’s teaching profession is highly union-
ized. The largest teacher union, the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) is affiliated to
the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). The latter is a partner in the ruling tripartite al-
liance that includes the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party
(SACP). Worldwide most public-sector unions are known to prop up left-wing political organizations.
SADTU is no exception. But this paper shows that SADTU organizes teachers at the expense of teaching
and learning in a country whose education system has been described as “a crisis” and “a national disas-
ter” whose schools are “dysfunctional”. The paper contemplates on the possibility of borrowing from bu-
siness models to “redesign” or “reengineer” the country’s ailing education system into an efficient system.
Keywords: SADTU; Global Union Politics; Reengineering; South Africa; Teachers’ Strikes; Education
Harvard Business Review (HBR) of January-February 2011
ran a Spotlight on “Business Model Innovation”, while The
Economist of 8-14 January 2011 ran a lead story on “Public-
Sector Unions”. The two articles are pertinent to South Africa’s
ailing and dysfunctional education system. South Africa’s tea-
ching profession is highly unionized. There are four major tea-
cher unions: the South African Democratic Teachers Union
(SADTU), the National Professional Teachers Association of
South Africa (NAPTOSA), the Suid-Afrikaanse Onderwysunie
(SAOU), and the National Teachers Union (NATU) (Fiske &
Ladd, 2004). SADTU is by far the biggest, boasting of over
240,000 members. It is affiliated to the Congress of South Af-
rican Trade Unions (COSATU). The latter is a member of the
ruling tripartite alliance comprising the African National Con-
gress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP).
Chisholm (2003) argues that SADTU is not only the most
powerful union, but is also closest to the government. Born in
the years of the anti-apartheid struggle, the union defined itself
in opposition to the then racially-based professional associa-
tions as being concerned with issues wider than the narrow work-
place and salary concerns of these associations. After the tran-
sition to democracy in April 1994 most of SADTU leadership
was catapulted to senior positions in the post-Apartheid gov-
ernment. And yet notwithstanding the union’s political ties with
government the two are often at loggerheads over labor issues.
The opening lines of 1960s legendary American folk rock
band Buffalo Springfield’s song “For What It’s Worth’ read:
There’s something happening here/what it is ain’t exactly clear”.
With South Africa’s education system we all know “there’s
something happening here”. The only thing different is that
what it is “is exactly clear”. And that is, the system is dys-
functional. It has been described as “a crisis” (Fleisch, 2008;
Ray, 2008), and “a national disaster” (Bloch, 2009) that is “in
tatters” (Monare, 2010). It is “inefficient and makes ineffective
use of resources” (Centre for Development and Enterprise,
2007). As a result it is “generally performing poorly” (Van der
Berg, 2007) and lags “far behind even much poorer countries”
(van der Berg, 2008). Scores obtained by South African school
learners in international tests and evaluation in literacy and
numeracy are much lower than those obtained by learners in the
East Asian tigers of Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea,
whose governments spend proportionately much less on
schooling than South Africa. Van der Berg (2007: p. 854) notes
that South Africa’s performance in the Grade 6 education
evaluation test conducted by the Southern African Consortium
for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ II) in 2000
placed it in the bottom half of the 14 participating countries on
both reading and mathematics. Most pupils at Grade 6 level
performed at Grade 3 level or worse in mathematics tests
(Moloi, 2005). Against this background our view is that South
Africa’s education system needs “reengineering”. The idea of
business “reengineering” was given prominence by Michael
Hammer and James Champy (2003) in their book, Reengineer-
ing the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution.
Others have proposed the idea of “reinvention” (Nunes &
Breene, 2011; Govindarajan & Trimble, 2011), with a view to
turning conventional wisdom on its head and learning to focus
on fixing what doesn’t appear to be broken.
In this article we debate global public-sector unionism and
speculate on its impact on the crisis of education in South Af-
rica. We are concerned that SADTU tends to flex its political
muscles to mobilize teachers to strike over salary increases, but
that the strikes and stay-aways often occur at the expense of
teaching and learning, which are compromised for months on
end. This does not augur well in a country whose education
system is dysfunctional and cannot compete with systems in its
much poorer neighboring countries. Our view is that South
Africa’s education system needs to be “redesigned” and “reen-
gineered”. It might be argued that models for “redesigning” and
“reengineering” businesses are intended for profit making busi-
ness enterprises in the private sector and might not be appropri-
ate to public education, which resides in the public sector.
While there might be substance in the argument it is our con-
tention that important lessons can be learned from private busi-
ness “redesigning” and “reengineering” for the purpose of de-
veloping sustainable strategies for improving the provision of
quality public education. We explore the potential of such
business models. First, we sketch the global public-sector union
scenario. Second, we comment on SADTU’s political muscles
and the implications thereof for the delivery of quality public
education, especially in black schools. Third, we speculate on
the possibilities of “reinventing” and “reengineering” South
Africa’s ailing and dysfunctional education system. And finally,
we offer some concluding remarks.
The Global Public-Sector Union Scenario
Currently the global union sector is experiencing mixed for-
tunes. On the one hand union membership in the private sector
has collapsed over the past 30 years (from 44% of the work-
force to 15% in Britain and from 33% to 15% in America). On
the other hand union membership in the public sector has re-
mained buoyant. The Economist (2011) notes that over half the
workers in Britain are unionized. In America the figure is cur-
rently 36% (compared with just 11% in 1960) while in Canada
public-sector union density has increased from 12% in 1960 to
more than 70% today. What magnifies public-section union
membership and power is not only the unions’ ability to shut
down monopolies and force some of the businesses to go bust,
but also the unions’ political clout over some of the employers.
Politicians are prone to acquiescing to public-sector union de-
mands by awarding generous pensions, adding more holidays
or dropping proposed reform initiatives. The Economist (2011)
notes that “wages are on average higher in the state sector, pen-
sions hugely better, and jobs far more secure”. To any com-
mentator on the South African education system and teacher
unions The Economist observations above are like déjà vu. As
mentioned above South Africa’s teaching profession is highly
unionized. SADTU routinely organizes strikes and protest mar-
ches to “demand” salary increases and related benefits, often
above market value, notwithstanding National Treasury’s view
that public service wages account for 32% of the country’s an-
nual budget of R850 billion. National Treasury is clear that
government needs to reprioritize spending and rein in the
budget deficit, which has reached a 17-year high of 6.2% of
gross domestic product in the year through March (Monana &
Hlongwane, 2010).
Teachers’ strikes are a global phenomenon. The Economist
(2011: p. 22) reports that in Brazil, teachers have organized
huge marches against government’s attempts to link promotion
to performance and to reduce the number of days when they
can take off without notice. In Greece teachers have fought four
consecutive education ministers from different parties over per-
formance reviews. In Britain teachers are trying to kill “free”
schools, which can be set up outside local-authority control,
while in the United States of America (USA) teachers continue
to fight against charter schools (which escape union rules about
pay and promotion) and scholarship schemes (which give
choice to parents). As is to be expected this trend is also a
characteristic feature of the South African public-sector union.
For instance, SADTU has vehemently opposed the Department
of Education (DoE)’s introduction of the scheme to monitor
and evaluate the performance of the schools and the teachers.
As The Economist (2011) points out, ahead of these battles lies
a huge opportunity—to redesign government and focus it on
productivity and delivery of better services. We will come back
to the notions of “redesign” and “reengineer” in more detail
below. The need to focus on productivity and delivery of better
services is especially pertinent to South Africa where the edu-
cation system is dysfunctional, unemployment is high and ine-
quality is rising.
The Economist (2011: p. 21) notes that “public-sector unions
are some of the world’s most powerful interest groups. Many of
them have large membership and comparably large budgets”. In
many countries public-sector unions prop up left-wing political
organizations. For instance, Britain’s Labor Party gets 80% of
its funding from public-sector unions (which also, in effect,
chose its leader). The new leader of the Labor Party, Ed Mili-
band owes his job to trade union votes. In the US, teachers
accounted for a tenth of the delegates at the Democratic con-
vention in 2008. According to The Economist (2011), Andy
Stern, head of the Service Employees International Union, was
the most frequent guest at the White House in the first six
months of Barack Obama’s presidency. In South Africa, SADTU’s
former senior office bearers have gone on to become long-
serving cabinet ministers and senior government officials in the
post-apartheid democratic government.
Unions make it almost impossible for employers to sack in-
competent workers (The Economist, 2011: p. 22). Indeed “poli-
ticians have repeatedly given in, sneakily-by swelling pensions,
adding more holidays or dropping reforms” (The Economist
(2011: p. 9). Politicians are under constant pressure to seek
more diplomatic solutions to public-sector union demands in
order to avoid tension and protracted labor disputes. History
shows that politicians who become confrontational soon realize
that they do so at their own peril. Greek education minister
Marietta Giannakou lost her seat for insisting on teacher ac-
countability. In the US, Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the school
system in Washington DC closed failing schools, fired more
than 200 ineffective teachers and principals, and advocated
merit pay. In response the unions used their political muscles to
bring about her resignation. During 2000-2010 the Los Angeles
school district spent $3.5 m trying to get rid of 33,000 “problem
teachers”. In the end it only succeeded in getting rid of a paltry
five. Worldwide public-sector unions have successfully ex-
tracted excellent benefits for their members and forced gov-
ernments to grant unionized workers light workloads and gen-
erous pensions, while also making it impossible to sack incom-
petent and underperforming workers. Invariably public-sector
workers earn, on average, a third more than their private-sector
counterparts. The Economist (2011: p. 22) notes that in Amer-
ica teachers teach for a mere 180 days a year, while in Brazil
teachers have the right to take 40 days off a year-out of 200
working days—without giving an explanation or lose of a cen-
tavo of pay. Unionized South African teachers spent less time
in class teaching (Chisholm et al., 2005; Makola, 2005).
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s.
SADTU’s Public Muscles and Their Implications
for Education
The international public-sector union picture sketched above
resonates with South Africa’s teacher unions’ scenario. As men-
tioned above, SADTU is the largest teacher union in South
Africa boasting of 240 000 members, mostly black and African.
This number constitutes more than 70% of educators in the
whole of South Africa’s teaching sector (Zengele, 2009). We
also mentioned that SADTU is a strategic political partner in
the ANC-led ruling tripartite alliance by virtue of its affiliation
to COSATU. The tripartite alliance represents the predomi-
nantly black and African political constituency that was previ-
ously disadvantaged and excluded from decision-making proc-
esses during apartheid, but which now constitutes an unassail-
able majority in the South African parliament. It is this majority
that votes bills into laws and discussion documents into na-
tional policies.
We mentioned above that globally public-sector unions prop
up most left-wing political organizations. In SADTU’s case its
former president, Membathisi Mdladlana became minister of
labor when the ANC was voted into government in April 1994
(Zengele, 2009). Mdladlana remains the longest serving minis-
ter in South Africa’s post-apartheid government having served
as labor minister during the presidencies of Nelson Mandela,
Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe, who was acting presi-
dent when Mbeki was recalled by the ANC in September
2008.1 Mdladlana was only relieved of his ministerial duties by
President Jacob Zuma towards the end of 2010. Another former
SADTU senior official, Duncan Hindle, joined the Department
of Education in 1996 as chief director and was eventually pro-
moted to the position of director general in 2005. Former
SADTU Secretary General Thula s Nxesi, was ma de member of
parliament in 2009 (Zengele, 2009). He was appointed deputy
minister of rural development and land reform in 2010, and
subsequently promoted to minister of public service during the
2012 cabinet reshuffle.
SADTU’s position as a key partner in the ruling tripartite al-
liance has serious implications for appointments to key strategic
posts in the schools. In their Human Sciences Research Council
(HSRC) study on retention and attrition of teachers in the North
West Province Diko and Letseka (2009: p. 323) re port on abuses
of recruitment and promotion processes for post levels 2 (head
of department) and post level 3 (deputy principal) by teacher
unions, especially SADTU and union-aligned local education
officials. This often manifests in behind-the-scenes canvassing
by union leaders for their preferred candidates. And while the
interview questions for such posts are supposed to be tightly
managed by the District Education Office and by law unions
are supposed to only serve as observers during the interview
process, Diko and Letseka (2009) report on routine and con-
venient leaking of classified details to the unions’ preferred
candidates to enable them to sail through the interview. Zengele
(2009) writes that the SADTU strike of June 2009 was primar-
ily a protest against the Gauteng Department of Education’s
refusal to endorse the appointment of two principal who were
SADTU’s preferred candidates. Ironically one of the union’s
preferred candidates had 18 years experience as an administra-
tive clerk and only six months as an educator, while the other
was a wife to a SADTU official with only a teaching diploma.
The candidates the union sought to sideline were experienced
educators who possessed postgraduate education degrees.
Notwithstanding its strategic position in the ruling tripartite
alliance SADTU does not hesitate to mobilize its members to
go on strike over salary increases. The strikes are often marked
by violent attacks on those that are perceived to be dissenters or
scabs. Fleisch (2010: p. 123) argues that SADTU members are
willing to use intimidation and threats as tactics with the de-
partment’s officials and schools, and SADTU militants assume
de facto authority in relation to departmental functions such as
district officials’ work and disciplinary action against schools
that bar learners from writing examinations. Concomitantly,
SADTU strikes and protest marches are often carried out with
total disregard for their impact on teaching and learning (Mba-
bela, 2010; Lelliott & Mbabela, 2010). For instance, in 2000
the DoE introduced the National Policy on Whole School
Evaluation (WSE) to monitor and evaluate the performance of
the schools and the teachers (Jansen, 2004). The WSE was
designed “to establish standardized instruments and procedures
for monitoring school performance and establishing the support
needs of schools” (Taylor, Muller, & Vinjevold, 2003: p. 126).
The policy was meant to be supportive and developmental
rather than punitive and judgmental. It was not intended to be
used as a coercive measure, but would ensure that policies are
compliant with it. It would facilitate support and improvement
of school performance using approaches of partnerships, col-
laboration, mentoring and guidance. Regardless of all these
assurances SADTU waged a bitter battle to prevent such testing
and evaluation and to protect its members from bei ng evaluat ed,
some of whom have in fact been described as “scoundrels”
(Monare, 2011). In 2003 the East Rand Gauteng branch of
SADTU refused WSE into their classrooms (Weber, 2005). By
the time the June 2009 Soweto Branch of SADTU “strike ac-
tion came to an end, hundreds of teachers had missed more than
two weeks of work, thousands of school children, including
learners in the final years of secondary school, had missed their
mid-year examinations, and a number of principals and teachers
had been assaulted and intimidated” (Fleisch, 2010: p. 117).
On 18 August 2010 SADTU embarked on a full scale “in-
definite strike” over salaries. The union demanded an 8.6%
salary adjustment, R1000 housing allowance, and an equaliza-
tion of medical aid (SADTU media statement, 17 August 2010).
The strike resulted in a total shut down of schools until 6 Sep-
tember 2010 when it was eventually suspended. Grade 12 (ma-
tric) examinations were due to start on 26 October 2010. Bloch
(2008: p. 129) notes a tendency for relations with teacher un-
ions to be conflict-based “labor relations” rather than processes
of mutual professional development. The only language known
by unions to achieve their goals is: “we demand”. In most
SADTU-organized strikes the DoE is known to accede to the
union’s demands. This can be attributed to SADTU’s historical
links with South Africa’s liberation struggle politics as
sketched by Chisholm (2003) above, and the fear by govern-
ment that protracted teachers’ strikes would have a negative
impact on time spent on teaching, preparation and planning
(Chisholm et al., 2005; Makola, 2005).
Given the above account it is no wonder South Africa’s edu-
cation system has been described as “a crisis” (Fleisch, 2008)
and “a national disaster” (Bloch, 2009) that is “in tatters”
(Monare, 2010), that is “inefficient and makes ineffective use
of resources” (CDE, 2007), and is “essentially dysfunctional”
(Taylor, 2006; Bloch, 2010). In its “Special Report on South
1See Frank Chikane (2012) Eight days in September: The removal of Thabo
beki. Johannesburg: Picador Afric a.
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 1199
Africa: Last in Class”, The Economist (2010) cites Graeme
Bloch, who describes South Africa’s education system as a
“national disaster”. In his book, The Toxic Mix: Whats Wrong
With SAs Schools and How to Fix It, Bloch (2009: p. 88) is
categorical that “schooling in South Africa is a national disas-
ter”. He writes that a toxic mix of factors conspires to keep
South Africa’s schools in a state of disaster. Half of all pupils
drop out before taking their final “matric” examinations. Out of
a thousand people born between 1980 and 1984, an estimated
984 entered Grade 1, but 12 years later only 456 or 46%
reached Grade 12 (see Figure 1). Bloch notes that barely 11%
of this total gets a good enough pass to qualify for university.
The rest are functionally illiterate and innumerate, requiring
intensive first-year remedial classes to bring them up to scratch.
Taylor (2006) argues that good schools are ordered institutions
which cultivate a strong work ethic, the ability to perform under
pressure, and a sense of initiative and responsibility; they teach
children, both in the way they operate and in the values they
espouse, that expertise and principle, not patronage and corrup-
tion, are the paths to sustainable success. Such schools are
places where future citizens learn to appreciate cultural diver-
sity and resolve their differences through the application of
rational rules. Sadly in South Africa such schools are rare.
For Block (2009), there is no shortage of evidence on how
badly the South African education system is performing. The
stark reality is that some 60% - 80% of the schools today might
be called “dysfunctional” (Bloch, 2009: p. 17). Some 41% of
schools are in poor or unacceptable state of maintenance (Bloch,
2009: p. 81). The dysfunction is manifest in South African
learners’ poor performance in international evaluation tests on
literacy, numeracy and science ability. In their evaluation of
South Africa’s performance in the 2003 Trends in International
Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), Reddy et al., (2006)
note that South Africa had one of the highest gross national
incomes (GNI in US Dollars) per capita of the group, yet it had
the lowest average mean score in mathematics and science.
South Africa came last out of the 50 countries participating in
the 2003 TIMSS study, and had the lowest scores in numeracy
in the Monitoring of Learning Achievement (MLA) (Reddy,
2006: p. 139). This is confirmed by Kivilu (2006: p. 36) who
notes that TIMSS ranks South Africa last in proficiency levels.
About 69 per cent of South African learners who took part in
TIMSS did not achieve the lower-quarter benchmark. Grade 6
education evaluation tests conducted by SACMEQ II in 2000
placed South Africa in the bottom half of the 14 participating
countries in both reading and mathematics, behind countries
such as Botswana, Kenya, Lesotho, Mauritius, Mozambique,
Namibia, Seychelles, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia,
and Zimbabwe (Bloch, 2009). More than half of grade 6 stu-
dents perform at a grade 3 level or lower in mathematics (Van
der Berg, 2007; Moloi, 2005).
Figure 1.
Survival and dropout rate: 1980-1984 birth cohort.
Fleisch (2008) reviewed numerous “authoritative studies on
reading and mathematics achievement” conducted to test South
Africa’s primary school learners. These include among others,
the Monitoring Learning Achievement (MLA, 1999), the Early
Reading Workshop (ERW, 1999), the Quality Learning Project
(QPL, 2001), the District Development Support Program
(DDSP, 2001), the TIMSS 2003, the Family Literacy Project
(FLP, 2004), the SACMEQ II, 2005, and the Progress in Inter-
national Reading Literary Study (PIRLS, 2006). While the
studies used different “standards” to measure achievement, they
all point to the predicament of extremely low average primary
education achievement levels (Fleisch, 2008: p. 30). The vast
majority of children attending disadvantaged schools do not
acquire the basic level of mastery in reading and mathematics.
Reporting on the crisis of schooling in the Eastern Cape
Province,2 Capazorio (2011) writes that due to financial mis-
management the provincial DoE cut essential services such as
school transport, which ensure that more than 100,000 pupils
from rural settlements get to and from school each day. The
department also cancelled the school nutrition program, which
ensures that 1.6 million pupils get at least one meal a day. A
concerned opposition party member made the followings re-
marks in the provincial legislature:
A child gets up at 4 am, walks 12 km to school, gets there
hungry and there is nothing to eat. Then he sits in a classroom
with no teacher. He cant concentrate any way because he is so
hungry and tired, then he must walk back home. Is that fair? It
is a disgrace (Feris, 2011).
In 2010 Feris (2011) reported on schools in the province that
were destroyed by a tornado. In 2011 she noted that despite
promises by the provincial DoE, one of the schools was never
rebuilt, nor was temporary shelter erected. At another school
the provincial DoE provided tents to house the pupils but failed
to pay the supplier, who removed the tents, leaving more than
200 pupils to be taught in the open. When schools reopened in
January 2011 the provincial DoE had terminated the contracts
of 4219 temporary teachers filling vacant posts at critically
understaffed schools. Permanent incumbents of the posts were
still on payroll yet they were not teaching. SADTU demanded
that all temporary teachers whose contracts were terminated be
reinstated. At the time of writing only 1000 teachers had been
reinstated. Monare (2011) argues that SADTU exploits black
education as a bargaining chip to protect its members. To reit-
erate our own rendition of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s
Worth’ above, there’s something happening here/what it is, is
exactly clear”. South Africa’s education system is dysfunctional.
We noted in the introduction that the earlier SADTU defined
itself as “concerned with wider issues than narrow workplace
and salary concerns”. Ironically, the current SADTU mines the
very narrow salary concerns to render education ungovernable.
The national DoE (2007a: p. 29) acknowledges the crisis in
education: “the evidence is overwhelming that teaching and
learning within the system as a whole are in crisis”. Out of
24,717 public schools in the country, 19,550 or 79% are in need
of basic facilities such as chairs and desks; 20,961 or 84.8% do
not have laboratories, while 19,465 or 78.7% do not have li-
braries (The Star, 2011). These are staggering percentages. The
2The Easter n Cape Province is the poorest perf orming province in educa tio n
in the country. It has been described as the province most in need of infra-
structural development like clean water and sanitation, and improvement o
life circumstances such as employment creation and family planning (see
Letseka, 2010).
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s.
DoE (2007b) draws on a UNESCO (2007) report that picks out
poverty as “a significant obstacle to children’s education”.
While there might be substance in the “poverty thesis” our view
is that to push it as the main reason for the dysfunction in edu-
cation is a flawed logic that only obfuscates important predic-
tors of school success. As Hofmeyr and Oberholzer (2011)
rightly point out, teacher commitment (the culture of teaching),
time spent in class delivering quality teaching and learning
(time on tasks), teacher knowledge of subject content, and full
coverage of the curriculum, are some of the more accurate pre-
dictors of school success. Gauthier and Dembélé (2004) concur.
They argue that several decades of pedagogical research show
that what teachers do in the class is undoubtedly the key educa-
tional determinant in student learning and achievement. Ironi-
cally, the HSRC research we mentioned earlier shows that
South African teachers generally spent very little time in class
teaching (Chisholm et al., 2005). This has prompted South Af-
rica’s president Jacob Zuma to call for the three Ts (that is,
prioritization of teachers, textbooks and time on tasks). Even
then there is evidence that the three Ts campaign might not
work in difficult-to-manage provinces such as the Eastern Cape
and Limpopo. Fleisch (2008: p. 121) argues that “irrespective
of children’s social characteristics, their access to “social capi-
tal”, the general state of health and welfare, or familiarity with
the dominant language of schooling, the underlying or funda-
mental problem in South African education is about what hap-
pens inside the classrooms of our nation”. Teacher quality is the
most important leaver for improving student outcomes. The
best performing systems ensure quality teaching by valuing
teachers as professionals, selecting candidates for the profes-
sion through strict processes and monitoring their performance
at all stages of their training and professional activities Mos-
selson (2008: p. 4).
Given overwhelming evidence that in South Africa teachers
spent less time in classes teaching, that classes are likely to be
disrupted by routine teachers’ strikes over salaries, and recently
the failure to deliver books on time to schools in Limpopo (at
the time of writing, in July, basic education minister was still
sorting out delivery of books to schools), the result is cohorts of
underprepared school leavers. Research on schooling in South
Africa provides ample evidence of under-preparedness of ma-
tric students (Slonimsky & Shalem, 2006; Moll, 2004; Nya-
mapfene & Letseka, 1995). Slonimsky and Shalem (2006: pp.
46-47) argue that normally students who matriculate are ex-
pected to be highly practiced in working on text-based realities
and creating their own text-based realities through writing. But
a significant proportion of students currently enrolling in higher
education do not appear to have mastered properties of text-
based realities. They tend to follow a series of pervasive pat-
terns in their approach to texts and epistemic practices when
they first engage in university study—verbatim reproduction or
plagiarism; a tendency to focus on examples rather than on
principles; a tendency to write from a highly subjective view-
point without depersonalizing; a failure to pull out arguments in
text or cast them; a tendency to include anecdotes as a justifica-
tion for claims, and a tendency to be prescriptive or normative
when asked to be analytic. Other researchers have attributed
this under-preparedness to lack of the necessary “epistemolo-
gical access” for higher education teaching and learning (Bou-
ghey, 2005; Morrow, 1992). Our view is that the destabilizing
effect of teacher unions as well the DoE’s indecisiveness need
structured and concerted intervention.
What’s to Be Done?
Block (2009: p. 24) asks pertinent questio ns to South Africa’s
education dilemma: how should we fix the schools? What will
make the difference and open access to quality education for all
children? These questions imply that South Africa’s system
needs radical “redesign” or “reengineering”. For O’Looney
(1993: pp. 376-377), at the heart of redesigning any education
system is the notion of changing outdated rules and fundamen-
tal assumptions. “Redesigning” means re-examining assump-
tions and shedding rules of work that are based on outdated
notions about technology, people, and organizational goals. The
notion of “reengineering” is attributed to Michael Hammer and
James Champy’s (2003) corporate philosophy cogently articu-
lated in their book: Reengineering the Corporation: A Mani-
festo for Business Revolution. Hammer and Champy (2003)
define “reengineering” as the fundamental rethink and radical
redesign of business processes to generate dramatic improve-
ments in critical performance measures—such as cost, quality,
service and speed (see Figure 2). “Reengineering” requires
people running companies and working in them to change how
they think as well as what they do. It requires companies to
replace old practices with entirely new ones. It foc uses on break-
throughs—quantum leaps forward, and the creation of value.
In an earlier publication Hammer (1990: p. 2) argues that
“instead of embedding outdates processes in silicon and soft-
ware, we should obliterate them and start over. We should “re-
engineer” our businesses by using the power of modern infor-
mation technology to radically redesign our business processes
in order to achieve dramatic improvements in their perform-
ances”. “Reengineering” is an all-or-nothing proposition with
an uncertain result (Hammer, 1990: p. 2). Manage rs must switch
from supervisory roles to acting as facilitators, enablers, and
people whose jobs are the development of people and their
skills so that those people will be able to perform value-adding
processes themselves (Hammer & Champy, 2003: p. 77). For
many companies “reengineering” is the only hope for breaking
away from antiquated processes that threaten to drag them
down. This is because “at the heart of reengineering is the no-
tion of discontinuous thinking-of recognizing and breaking-
away from the outdated rules and fundamental assumptions that
underlie operations” (Hammer, 1990: p. 4). In the reengineered
status quo “managers are not the deciders of the fate of em-
ployees; customers are. The company does not close plants or
lay off workers; customers do, by their actions and inactions”
(Hammer, 1996: p. 27). For Hammer (1990: p. 4), most busi-
ness processes and structures are outmoded and obsolete; frag-
mented and piecemeal, and lack the integration necessary to
maintain quality and service. They are burdened with layers of
unproductive overheads and armies of unproductive workers
(Hammer, 1990: p. 8), and they are “breeding grounds for tun-
Figure 2.
The reengineering Concept.
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 1201
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
nel vision, as people tend to substitute the narrow goals of their
particular departments for the larger goals of the process as a
whole” (Hammer, 1990: p. 4).
To successfully reengineer, companies need a business
model. But what is “a good business model”? What are charac-
teristics of a “good business model”? Casadesus-Masanell &
Ricart (2011: p. 102) argue that “a business model should con-
sist of a set of managerial choices and the consequences of
those choices”. It should meet the following criteria a) It must
be aligned with company goals: the choices made while de-
signing a business model should deliver consequences that
enable the organization to achieve its goals; b) It must be self-
reinforcing: the choices that executives make while creating a
business model should complement one another; there must be
internal consistency. When there is a lack of reinforcement, it
should be possible to refine the business model by abandoning
some choices and making new ones; and c) It must be robust: a
good business model should be able to sustain its effectiveness
over time by fending off threats and avoiding imitation by
competitors (Casadesus-Masanell & Ricart, 2011: p. 102).
Govindarajan and Trimble (2011) suggest that CEOs must
apply a diagnostic assessment of their companies’ vulnerability.
They propose that CEOs create three boxes: “Box 1: Manage
the Present”, “Box 2: Se lectively Forget the Past”, and “Box 3:
Create the Future” (see Figure 3). Box 1 is for preservation. It
should contain all the forces of change the company faces:
technology, customer demographics, regulation, globalization,
etc. That is, all those forces that are intended to improve to-
day’s business performance. Box 2 is for destruction. It should
contain all those forces aimed at stopping something: under-
performing products and services, obsolete policies and prac-
tices, and outdated assumptions and mindsets. Box 3 is for
creation. It should contain all those forces that prepare the or-
ganization for long-term growth and development. Striking a
healthy between the three boxes is the CEO’s most important
task. For Govindarajan and Trimble (2011: p. 109), most com-
panies overwhelmingly favor box 1. But forward-looking CEOs
tend to strike the right balance. They manage the present effi-
ciently, systematically throw away some of the old practices
and assumptions if they deem these to hinder progress, and
create a prosperous future for their companies.
The pertinence of these views to South Africa’s education
system cannot be overemphasized. The DoE’s failure to deliver
quality education and its paralysis by teacher unions’ demands
suggests that the bigger picture of educating the young people
has been lost. How can “reengineering” help reshape South
Africa’s education system? How can the national DoE take that
quantum leap of shifting from outdated assumptions and shed-
ding rules of work that are based on outdated notions about
technology, people, and organizational goals? (O’Looney, 1993:
p. 377). For over 18 years the DoE has been stuck in Box 1 and
not doing a good job of “managing the present” either. The
system is dysfunctional and underperforms compared to the
education systems of Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea,
as well as those of neighboring African countries such as Bot-
swana, Kenya, Lesotho, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia,
Seychelles, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zim-
babwe. These countries spent much less on schooling than
South Africa, yet their learners outperform South Africa’s
learners in international evaluations and tests (Bloch, 2009;
Shindler, 2008; van der Berg, 2008, 2007; Reddy et al., 2006;
Moloi, 2005).
This is not unusual. As Govindarajan and Trimble (2011: p.
109) observe, “most companies overwhelmingly favor Box 1”
and ignore destruction and creation until it is too late. South
Africa’s national DoE has followed obsolete educational prac-
tices and outdated assumptions and mindsets. This does not
augur well for the country’s competitiveness on the global
market stage (Joseph, 2003; Lall & Pietrobelli, 2002). How can
the country’s education system be “reengineered”? What is it
that her neighbors are doing right that she is not? The answer to
these questions is fairly simple. These countries are good at
inspiring their teachers’ commitment (the culture of teaching).
Their teachers spent more time in class teaching (time on tasks).
They are generally qualified. They possess the basic knowledge
of subject content, and receive the necessary support to enable
them to be efficient at what they do. These practices are known
as the more accurate predictors of school success (Hofmeyr &
Oberholzer, 2011).
Effecting change in a public good such as education is not
easy. This is because the education enterprise is complex and
contested (Bloch, 2009; Egan, 1992; Enslin, 1993; Wilson,
1988). As Bloch (2009: p. 152) reminds us, the brutal truth is
that education is a complex field. Enslin (1993: p. 3) contends
that education is a complex and contested concept that picks out
a variety of activities, including centrally teaching and learning.
Similarly Wilson (1988: p. 84) argues that the education enter
prise is inextricably bound up with concepts and values that are
unclear, controversial, and hence very much in need of exami-
nation. For Egan (1992: p. 646), education is difficult, con-
Figure 3.
Diagnostic Assessment of Companies’ Vulnerability.
tentious, and radically incoherent. No one can claim to know
exactly what will make a difference and what will work at a
broad systemic level (Bloch, 2009: p. 167). However, Bloch is
optimistic that there are many things about education that can
be said. For instance, are there ways in which schools can play
a part in the revival of communities and creation of a better life
for all? The trouble with South Africa’s education system is
that there are not enough inspired, knowledgeable, dedicated
and committed teachers to staff the schools (Bloch, 2009: p.
168). Thus for Bloch (2009: p. 169), improving the quality of
teachers, helping teachers teach well, is the most urgent task.
More than anything else, what happens at the coalface of inter-
action between teacher and pupil is the key. Bloch suggests a
whole package of attempts to enthuse, support, train, renew,
and encourage a new teaching corps, as well as to establish non-
negotiables on agreed and acceptable behavior. We couldn’t
agree more. “Reengineering” South Africa’s education system
requires a total change of mindset by government, teachers,
parents, and learners, but most centrally teacher unions.
In this article we have debated global public-sector unionism
and its implications on the crisis of education in South Africa.
We noted that SADTU, which has powerful political links with
government routinely mobilizes its members to go on strike,
often at the expense of teaching and learning. We showed that
due to SADTU’s strike actions and the national DoE’s indeci-
siveness the country’s education system is “a crisis” and “a
national disaster”. It is “in tatters”; “inefficient and makes inef-
fective use of resources”; it is “generally performing poorly”
and lags “far behind the poorer countries” such as Botswana,
Kenya, Lesotho, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles,
Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, which
spend much less on education than South Africa.
We drew on Michael Hammer and James Champy ’s Reengi-
neering the Corporation to suggest that South Africa’s educa-
tion system needs a fundamental rethink and a radical redesign
in order to generate dramatic improvements in critical per-
formance measures such as cost, quality, service and speed. The
country’s dysfunctional education is an indictment of the ANC-
led tripartite alliance which commands over 70% majority in
the country’s par liament. Over 80% of the dysfunc tional schools
are predominantly in the black townships and rural areas, which
are key political constituencies of the ruling tripartite alliance.
It is ironic that the schools are under constant threat of strike
action by SADTU, a critical political partner in the ruling tri-
partite alliance. Against this contradictory and illogical status
quo it is our view that South Africa’s education system can
benefit immensely from Hammer and Champy’s idea of “reen-
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