Sunday, September 5, 2010
Oh When the Strike Comes Marching In
It’s a fascinating, albeit unsettling, time to be a teacher in South Africa. Three weeks have passed in a seemingly indefinite strike of South Africa’s public unions. Schools and hospitals nationwide have become battlegrounds as more than a million public employees, tens of thousands of teachers among themf, are demanding an 8.6 percent pay rise despite insistence from the debt-stricken government.
St. Peter’s is one of the only non-government schools in the area. Though they aren’t government employees, many of our teachers are still members of SADTU, the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union, and thus have joined the strike. The strike began on a Monday, and out of desire that learning continue, even the SADTU teachers remained in their posts for much of the week despite pressure from fellow teachers striking in our rural streets. All of us began parking our cars in the center of the schoolyard because strikers who were out of school had threatened to vandalize cars (which they could easily do with rocks if the cars were parked along the fence).
On Wednesday of that week, the SADTU teachers (the vast majority) of St. Peter’s walked away from their posts halfway through the school day to join a huge march of strikers that was gathering a few kilometers away. The scattered few non-union teachers (obviously including my fellow volunteer Katie and me), the principal, and the assistant principle tried to manage as many classes as we could after the walkout. I rotated between three classrooms of 8th graders and two classes of 9th graders.
We’d been warned that there could be hostility and even violence towards St. Peter’s staff, who some government teachers and community members saw as treacherous for remaining in session despite the strike. Roughly an hour after the teachers had walked out, hundreds of marchers made their way down the dusty road towards St. Peter’s. As the chants of struggle songs and hoots of vuvuzelas (horns) grew louder, our principal asked the oldest male students (9th graders) to ensure that all the students stayed in their classrooms with the doors shut. Some of the older female students were asked to run to the younger children in grades 1-5, many of whom were alone in their classrooms. One of the 9th grade boys came to my classroom and said, “Don’t let the students out for any reason Ma’am Sarah. You don’t understand how angry these people are. The teenagers will hurt us if they can.” More than striking teachers, he was referring to gang members and radical youth who, their schools being closed or having dropped out of school themselves, had joined the protests.
It was hard to keep cool in front of thirty fearful 8th graders. As I tried to carry on with a lesson about the history of paper making, my head swelled with thoughts like how we might blockade the door with desks if protesters got inside the fence. One student started shacking with fear, and several others began crying. I thought to myself that these students know the destruction of which a select few are capable. We heard shouts and rocks being thrown at the library, the building closest to the fence where the marchers passed. After about fifteen minutes, the march had passed us. Thankfully, the first days of the strikes came and went without any serious acts of violence toward the school.
Into its fourth week, the strike rages on. Each night on the news, we hear of chaos breaking out when strikers gain illegal access to schools that have remained in session. Some strikers go in with the intention of disrupting learning. Others try (and often succeed) to intimidate teachers and pupils to abandon their classrooms. Sadly, in some cases, the intention is in fact to damage school property or teach so-called treacherous teachers a lesson.
Some St. Peter’s students have experienced taunts and even threats from peers from other schools over the past weeks. Fearful of being targeted and attacked for attending school, those who walk several kilometers have sometimes waited to put on their conspicuous uniform shirts until safely within the fenced grounds.
The emotional intensity of this standoff between the government and unions has grown, even in such a town as Kroonstad. On the news last night, an angry union official being interviewed encouraged striking teachers to carry the pickets to private schools and hospitals where the “political elite” educate their children and send their families. The official was presumably referring to posh schools in cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town, not a rural township school like St. Peter’s. Our school fees are nominal, and our funding less than that of many government schools. And there are certainly no “political elite” living in this impoverished community for that matter. But strikers in Maokeng seem to have felt the same anger toward St. Peter’s for remaining in session.
Following threats, other non-government schools throughout South Africa have shut their doors, telling non-union teachers they mustn’t come because of the intimidation from striking colleagues and risk of violence against them. In areas nearby Kroonstad, rubber bullets and water cannons were used against protesters when picketing in front of open schools became hostile. In many towns, demonstrators have forced their way into schools and hospitals and forced non-union doctors, nurses, and teachers to leave, tearing up exam papers were torn up and using physical force to “release” the students. Katie and I have planned alternative routes to and from St. Peter’s after hearing that strikers might block roads accessing hospitals and schools. St. Peter’s has urged the local community to remain peaceful despite protests, but the anxiety of teachers who’ve decided to return to work is palpable. Being a volunteer teacher has put Katie and I in a unique position amidst battling teachers and schools, but we are also anxious about the welfare of all involved, particularly the students.
Thankfully, St. Peter’s only goes through grade nine, though students at other schools are less fortunate. Throughout the country, 12th graders are struggling to study for their trial examinations as their teachers strike. With only two weeks before the exams, many people fear the strike will affect their performance. Government officials have even appealed to community members, former teachers and university students to teach learners during the strike. So please pray for South Africa, especially as the strike continues to block access to the basic services on which the majority of the poorest among us depend.
Posted by Sarah Moran at 12:31 PM