“National security” is a contested concept, easily (mis)used in any number of contexts. It is my fervent hope that the South African government will publish a definition when it updates its defence, state security or foreign policy documents.
In the meantime,one has to make do with such definitions that are available. The US Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms in 2005 defined “national security” as a “collective term encompassing both national defence and foreign relations of the United States. Specifically, the condition provided by:
a. a military or defence advantage over any foreign nation or group of nations;
b. a favourable foreign relations position; or
c. a defence posture capable of successfully resisting hostile or destructive action from within or without, overt or covert.
The latter came to mind when the Democratic Alliance’s former deputy defence spokesman James Lorimer issued his first statement as deputy education shadow minister, telling the country “South Africa has a choice: we can either have good teaching or we can have SADTU (the government aligned SA Democratic Teachers’ Union), but we cannot have both.”
He was commenting on a finding contained in a labour relations review by Tokiso, the alternative dispute resolution NGO, showing that the union was responsible for 42% of all working days lost to strike action during the financial year to March 2009. The study found the National Union of Mineworkers, also a Congress of SA Trade Unions-affiliated union, was a distant second, contributing 12% of the total. The ill-disciplined SA Municipal Workers Union made up just 10%.
The review says a further two unions with “significant” membership in the public sector contributed to days lost – the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union 5% and the SA Transport and Allied Workers Union 6%. All are COSATU members – and mineworkers aside presenting the public with the spectacle of workers shaking their fists at the governing party they vote or. That, one supposes, is democracy.
But back to Lorimer: He says SADTU has over the years “single-mindedly pursued a selfish, small-minded agenda which has focused entirely on the personal interests of its most lazy and incompetent members, and not at all on the interests of the children whose futures depend on them.
“As a result, SADTU has, in the DA’s opinion, been the single biggest contributor to South Africa’s catastrophic matric results and our generally (with the exceptions being schools where SADTU does not dominate) dismal standard of education. Through its vigorous efforts to build a culture of greediness and irresponsibility amongst its members, it has helped to destroy the culture of learning.
“One mechanism to contain the damage that SADTU does is to at least make it more difficult for its members to go on strike at the drop of a hat. To do this would require making teaching an essential service.
“In terms of the Labour Relations Act, an essential service is defined as ‘a service which, if interrupted, would endanger on inconvenience the life or the health of people’. It is incontestable that the interruption of schooling inconveniences the life of the children concerned. Just a day missed in following the curriculum puts children behind in their learning and risks their futures.
“At the same time we recognize that the right to strike is an important democratic freedom, so we will be proposing to the committee that the right to strike be restored once a national matric pass rate of 80% has been achieved. Good teachers, of which there are many in our country, can get us out of the mess that our education system is in. But SADTU can’t.”
As it stands one out of every three South Africans of employable age cannot find work – and the numbers are increasing. At the same time the country’s skills shortage is growing. One reason for this contradiction is the poor quality of the bulk of high school graduates.
This is frightening. It is a threat to the future of this country, specifically a national security threat. It is in a very real way making it increasingly impossible for us to maintain a “defence posture capable of successfully resisting hostile or destructive action from within or without, overt or covert”. It is not just a question of pilots for our aircraft or navigators for our ships, it is doctors and nurses, architects and engineers, mechanics, plumbers, masons and infantry who can read maps.
Our youth needs a comprehensive education to make up for their comprehensive education. Schools are meant to educate. They are meant to be centres of excellence. They are not meant to be a source of employment. That is incidental. It is certainly not meant to be a “terrain of struggle” to keep the incompetent, the mediocre, the criminal, employed.
Lorimer is right. Anyone who favours the perpetuation a system where the employment of dismal teachers is of more importance than the education of our children is a national security threat.