By Carter Stoddard

In 1977 Zubeida Desai carried an extra pair of underwear with her every day on her way to work. She anticipated being arrested, as many of her colleagues had been previously, and wanted to be prepared for an overnight stay in jail. Today, Professor Zubeida Desai is finishing up the last year of her tenure as the Dean of Education at South Africa’s University of the Western Cape. While she was never arrested, this period in Desai’s life speaks to the everyday dangers of acting against the apartheid government. As a teacher, Desai started one of the first unions that actively fought against a system that had held her and her countrymen down their entire lives. The experience of Desai, and others involved in teachers’ unions in South Africa is the story of people and groups that evolved from the handmaidens of an oppressive government, to revolutionaries, and today, something altogether different. 

When the apartheid government consolidated control over the education system one of its first moves was to take charge of previously church-run schools, taking these missionary projects used to further black education and tying them to the state. From then on, all aspects of a child’s education could be controlled and students were split into racially divided groups. Blacks, coloreds, indians, whites. As a result, the first teacher’s unions to emerge were similarly splintered by race. A union of black teachers would organize to advocate for the rights of black students and teachers, and so on. 

This practice carried on into the 80’s as small unions struggled for representation, in a desperate effort to establish clout, groups referred to as “sweetheart unions” would sometimes work with the government. “Colored teachers had to somehow find a vehicle to express their union needs,” said Harold Herman, a former professor and Dean at the University of the Western Cape, who has witnessed firsthand the evolution of teachers’ unions in South Africa. “The question for these smaller unions, especially in the black community became ‘do we, without giving up our principles of democracy, equality and multiracialism, do we work within these white dominated structures’ and many were seen by those in the freedom struggle as sellouts to the government.”

Organizations such as ATASA, UTASA and TASA, representing black, colored and Indian teachers respectively were just a few entities in a long list of acronyms beholden to the whims of the apartheid government. Some small unions such as the Cape Teachers Professionals Association, the de facto colored teachers union, were quite strong in the 80’s due to their ability to work closely in negotiations with the Colored Affairs Department (apartheid body that controlled colored education) but in the end none could affect meaningful change in the face of such potent oppression.


WECTU used to have a orientation week for learners going to high school; create resources for teachers; arts and cultural days.


In the late 80’s the struggle against apartheid intensified at the community level, trade unions, began to band together in an effort to win influence. During this time UWC was a key institution in the freedom struggle. “One of the ways we progressed was through the union movement,” Herman said. “ Western Cape Teacher’s Union (WECTU) was established by staff at UWC, myself among them, that became the precursor of SADTU. That has developed to the extent that it is now by far the largest national teachers’ union.”


A SADTU march in 1992.


The need for a union aligned with the freedom struggle was entirely necessary in Herman’s view, “In the 80’s we had the police, on many campuses, but particularly on our campus very often. They used tear gas, brought in huge personnel carriers and fired rubber bullets to disperse students who were agitating,” he said. The biggest accomplishment of this era to Herman was the creation of the People’s Education Movement, an alternative education system carried out behind closed doors that opposed government controlled curriculum in schools. 

Leading up to and following liberation in 1991, middling sized unions such as WECTU dissolved, rolling themselves into the two primary players that emerged called SADTU and NAPTOSA, teachers finally had a voice that was heard by those in power. “The reason they consolidated is because we were winning the battles, negotiating decent service conditions,salary improvement, we were happier with the curriculum, teachers were now part of the educational establishment,” Herman said. “Today, conditions in schools have deteriorated, although there are many more children at school and many more are being built… teachers are not sticking to their service conditions: coming to school regularly, teaching continuously throughout the day, fulfilling curriculum requirements.”


The early SADTU in the Western Cape, also used to have the same events as WECTU. Namely because it was the same teachers.


Today, many argue for a melding of the two major unions, a move they think will help shore up lapses in each organization,  but Lynne Herrmann, an executive officer of NAPTOSA of Western Cape isn’t buying it.  “Personally I think the playing field is rather large, to try and adopt one ideology is counterproductive,” Herrmann said. “Some of the more militant are still fighting the struggle, but we’ve got a new struggle: social cohesion.”

A specific area where Hermann sees the major unions differ is on the issue of strikes. “SADTU would definitely go on a strike immediately, that would be our last resort, to disrupt education within the country,” Hermann said. “We would rather have dialogue than go to the streets.” She classifies teachers in South Africa into two distinct schools, describing the first as “stuff the children, stuff the schools, stuff the system, it’s my right.” Characterizing the others as valuing the educational system as a whole more than their individual rights as employees.


SADTU is criticized by many today who believe they resort to strikes without considering the consequences on students.


Herrmann said it becomes difficult to control individual members in an organization as sprawling as SADTU, which boasts more than 200,000 members nationwide. “They have huge membership, but the control from leadership down to grassroots is lacking” she said, citing documented cases of SADTU official selling their positions for personal benefit. 

Hermann believes that there is still a place for unions in South Africa but insists members must accept the reality of a “new struggle” shunning the old goal of acquiring influence to pursue greater social cohesion. She said total membership for SADTU is roughly 50,000 a majority of which she claims are black and colored, citing this as evidence that the racial motivation  behind union ties should be abandoned.


A SADTU demonstration in 1991, when the organization gained major political clout.


Professor Zubeida Desai started teaching in 1977 earning a salary of ZAR 285 each month. It was a year of uprisings and bitter struggle. “To me it was automatically part of a teacher’s job to be a part of that fight,” Desai said. “Later in 1985 I helped to form the Western Cape Teachers’ Union. At the time most existing structures were what we called ‘sweetheart unions’ we felt we needed an alternative. I was one of the founding members.

Desai’s union was different in that it sided wholly with the student unrest, it focused on what happened in the classroom, and finding workarounds for the government propaganda commonly taught to students. Although its successor, has changed in many ways, she still sees the old revolutionary spirit at its core.

“I still support SADTU,” says Desai, who had a hand in founding its progenitor, “I see it as the democratic union that is affiliated with COSATU. My political upbringing makes me support SADTU, though there are many things wrong with it, that doesn’t mean that you don’t work with it,” Desai said. “I still feel a loyalty to SADTU even though I’m critical of it as well.”



Desai is referring to the revolutionary spirit that the organization was born out of, “it’s part of the struggle you see” she says with the calm conviction of one who has stood by her values. before. She added that many white teachers are members of NAPTOSA while an overwhelming majority of black educators belong to SADTU, a detail that is impossible to ignore considering the divisive history of unions and South Africa itself. To this day, she said, working conditions at schools affiliated with either union are far from equal, a majority of SADTU schools are situated in in run-down townships where a quality working environment is much harder to achieve.

“My approach in life is to work where a majority of the people are, rather than to work in posh areas,” Desai said. “The middle class can look after itself, the rich can look after themselves.”



© 2018 Center for the Digital Globe