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“Teachers are humans too”

An interview with Curtis Nkondo. President of the National Education Union of South Africa (NEUSA)

Since the beginning of March, our schools have been standing empty. There are no students. And there are no teachers. All around the country, teachers have downed their chalks and gone on strike.

Most of the striking teachers are members of the National Education Union of South Africa (NEUSA). Learn and Teach spoke to Curtis Nkondo, president of NEUSA, about the strike.

Nkondo was the principal at Lamula High School in Soweto until he resigned in 1977 in protest against Bantu Education.

Learn and Teach: Can you tell us how and when NEUSA started?

Nkondo: In 1980, a group of educators decided to form a new teachers’ organisation, which they called NEUSA. They wanted an organisation that would be open to all. In the beginning, most of the teachers who joined NEUSA were white but over the years many black teachers joined.

Learn and Teach: How is NEUSA structured nationally?

Nkondo: NEUSA has branches — or locals, to use union language — and three representatives from each local make up the region.

Teachers can join NEUSA as individuals or as locals. Each local gets a copy of NEUSA’s constitution and each teacher pays a subscription fee of R10 a year.

Learn and Teach: What is the strength of NEUSA’s membership?

Nkondo: We can’t give figures at the moment but the support we have had in marches can give some idea. For example, when teachers from Soweto and Alex came together to march there were more than 10 000. In Pretoria, teachers from Mamelodi and Atteridgeville and other nearby townships also numbered over 10 000.

We have a presence in all the regions, except the Western Cape where we have a working relationship with the Western Cape Teachers Union (WECTU) and the Democratic Teachers Union (DTU).

Learn and Teach: What is the difference between NEUSA and other teachers organisations like the Transvaal Union of African Teachers (TUATA) and the African Teachers Association of South Africa (ATASA)?

Nkondo: The main difference is that these teachers’ organisations are not non- racial, that is to say, only African teachers can join. One of the most important principles of NEUSA is that it is non-racial. We do not agree with these organisations on this principle. But last year’s Unity Talks between teachers did create some unity. Many TUATA teachers are now joining NEUSA and ATASA teachers have also joined the strike.

Learn and Teach: What is NEUSA’s relationship with other progressive organisations?

Nkondo: We are an affiliate of the UDF. We have daily contact with other political organisations such as the Congress of South African Students (COSAS), South African National Students’ Congress (SANSCO), National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), the National Education Co-ordinating Committee (NECC), and COSATU.

Learn and Teach: Is NEUSA a trade union or an organisation?

Nkondo: We are a union, although we are not a trade union. By union we mean that we are united. During the Teachers Unity Talks, COSATU suggested that all the teachers unions form one union. But it should be a non-racial union. NEUSA has no objection to forming such a union.

Learn and Teach: Can you tell us about the problems faced by teachers in the classroom?

Nkondo: There are so many problems it is difficult to cover them all. Teachers have full timetables and too much work. Their classes are overcrowded with as many as 60 students in one class.

There is very little equipment and sometimes none at all. For example, few schools have photocopying machines, laboratories or libraries. Many schools don’t have electricity and there is a shortage of tables and chairs. The textbooks from the DET arrive late and so students have to share. It is almost impossible to teach in such a situation. These are just a few of the problems.

Learn and Teach: What are the demands of the teachers?

Nkondo: The DET wants to retrench teachers who they say are unqualified or underqualified. The majority of teachers have only Standard 8. But at the same time, there is a shortage of teachers and much overcrowding in the schools. So we are demanding an end to the retrenchment of teachers and the immediate employment of more teachers.

Another demand is about the freezing of jobs. When a teacher is retrenched, the DET is not giving the job to another teacher. This means that the workload of teachers is even greater. At the moment, most teachers are working 42 to 45 periods of 35 minutes a week. So we are demanding an end to the freezing of posts.

We are demanding a minimum salary of R1200. We also want equal salaries for men and women — they do the same training and the same work, so why should a woman be paid less?

Female teachers also want three months ‘ paid maternity leave. At the moment, if a woman falls pregnant she has to go on unpaid leave and it is not always certain that she will get her job back. Also, that married women should have the right to apply for housing loans. At the moment only men can do this, even if the woman is the breadwinner.

Another demand is that inspectors change their attitudes. At the moment, they are bossy and they harass the teachers.

We demand that the DET recognise SRC’s and Parents-Teachers-Students Associations (PTSA). We do not want the DET’s Management Committees. The people should have a say in making decisions and the running of schools. But the government must continue funding the schools.

We are demanding that the doors of Learning and Culture be open to all. We want non-racial schools for the people. There are 42 white schools in Johannesburg alone and 210 schools in the country that are not being used or are being used for other things. One school in Malvern, Johannesburg, is being used as parking for the Post Office!

Other demands are for the building of new schools, the repair of schools that have been vandalized, the training of teachers at any college, study leave, proper laboratories, libraries and sports facilities. Finally, we want an education system free of racialism and sexism.

Learn and Teach: How many teachers are on strike?

Nkondo: It is difficult to say at the moment. Since Soweto and Alex teachers went on strike, more areas have joined. Teachers in the Eastern Cape and the East Rand have also gone on strike.

Learn and Teach: What will happen if the DET does not meet the demands?

Nkondo: We have been holding talks with the Minister of Education and Development Aid, Stoffel van der Merwe and we are thinking about going back to school at the beginning of the new term. But this does not mean that we are ending our demands. If the Minister does not meet our demands, we will take futher steps.

Learn and Teach: At the beginning of the year, the NECC started a “Go-Back-To- School-and Learn” campaign and ANC leaders like Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu called on the children to go back to school. But the teachers have been on strike for more than a month. Was this the correct action to take?

Nkondo: Yes, it was. It was the only action we could take. In the past, we sent delegations and memorandums to the DET but they didn’t listen to us. So the strike had to happen. Teachers are also human and these are grievances that have built up over 40 years.

Teachers and students know that no real learning can take place in the terrible conditions in the schools. When the MDM and Mandela called on the students to go back to school, they did not mean that they shouldn’t challenge the situation in the schools.

Learn and Teach: What should students be doing while the teachers are on strike?

Nkondo: In some areas, the students organised their own classes. The older ones are teaching the younger ones. This is what they should be doing.

Learn and Teach: Have the students and the parents supported the strike?

Nkondo: Yes, very much so. For example, the students are the marshals at the marches. More than 50 000 Soweto and Alex students organised their own march in support of us. And the parents are calling meetings to discuss how to support the striking teachers.

Learn and Teach: Can principals and inspectors join NEUSA?

Nkondo: Anybody who believes in the same things can join NEUSA. Some principals have joined in the strike. Others want to join but they are afraid that they will be blacklisted by the DET. They do not want to lose their benefits. We say to them that they should join their brothers and sisters in the strike.

Learn and Teach: What is the way forward for teachers?

Nkondo: Teachers should continue in the struggle for a better education. Out of the strike, a very strong teachers organisation will emerge. Our task will be to educate and politicise each other and to work towards a people’s education in a new South Africa.


Just before the magazine went to the printers, the teachers decided to suspend the strike for three months and to go back to school when the new school term starts. If the DET does not meet most of the teachers’ demands during that period, as Minister van der Merwe promised, then they will go on strike again. To make up for the teaching weeks that were lost because of the strike, the teachers have agreed to teach throughout the June holidays. They, together with the parents, are calling on students to go back to school in the new term.

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