South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU)

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Before the formation of the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) in 1990, there was an existing teacher’s union called the Teacher’s Association of South Africa (TASA). It was the biggest union, made up of Indian teachers. In apartheid South Africa, education was divided along racial and ethnic lines. Hence Indian teachers could only affiliate to TASA at the time. However, TASA was a union that stood for and advocated non-racialism. Its Constitution stipulated that it was open to everybody, but it did not manage to recruit anybody from other ethnic group because of the apartheid system in South Africa. Poobie Naicker was the President of TASA at that time.

On the other hands, Coloured teachers were not well-paid, overworked, poorly trained and oppressed by the apartheid government. Therefore, the representative of African People’s Organisation (APO) saw the need for the formation of Coloured teachers association to organise the teachers for collective action to improve coloured teacher’s working conditions. APO was the wide-awake watchdog of the Coloured people’s interest. APO and its newspaper played an important role in the formation of the Coloured teachers association called the Teachers League of South Africa (TLSA) in Cape Town in 1913. The TLSA was formed by Harold Cressy, Abdurahman and a group of teachers from APO. The first desire to form the Coloured teachers association came in the form of an unknown letter to the newspaper in July 1912 proposing the formation of Coloured teachers association to improve the heavy workload of the Coloured mission school teacher.

TASA was among the first teacher formations that united teachers in South Africa that lead to the formation of SADTU. TASA brought to SADTU its membership, resources, secretariat support service, and a 15-storey building in Durban that laid the foundation for the SADTU.

In 1989, more than 6 000 South African teachers went on their first strike demanding the employment of more teachers, the reinstatement of teachers who had previously been dismissed, a reduction in the amount of teaching periods, and a salary increase of R500 across the board. Because the strike was more about the apartheid system, ordinary people supported the strike.

On 6 October 1990 in Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng), the national SADTU was formed in response to the systematic challenges in the professional, unionisation and development of teachers, as well as the transformation of the education system. Membathisi Mphumzi Shepherd Mdladlani became the first president and Poobie Naicker became the first vice-president of SADTU. SADTU is a trade union movement organising teachers irrespective of race, creed, or gender across South Africa. At its inception, the union had the membership of 30 000.

SADTU aligned to the principles of the Freedom Charter of 1955, which called for the “opening up of the doors of learning and culture for all”. In 1990, Randall Van Heever became the first General Secretary of SADTU, and Thulas Nxesi was his assistant General Secretary. In 1995, Thulas Nxesi became the General Secretary, and he held the position until 2009. William Mothipa Madisha served as the president from 1996 to 2008.

SADTU’s main objectives include fighting for members’ remuneration and improved working conditions for school-teachers (now called educators), representing and promoting the professional aspirations of teachers, playing a leading role in the struggle for education transformation, to deliver free and equal quality education for all learners, as well as participating in the struggle to deepen the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) and that socialism should be well understood in the context of the character of SADTU. The NDR meant that liberate Africans and particularly Blacks since they had suffered national oppression and class exploitation, but create non-racial, non-sexist, democratic, united and prosperous nation.

In 2004, 320 000 SADTU members, joined the public service workers strike that took place across the country. The strike was over wages. Public servants did not want a two-year freeze on real wages for 2005 to 2006. It was the biggest strike action in South African history to date. In 2010, teachers went on strike again, where they demanded a salary increase of 8.6%, a housing allowance of R1 000 and an equalisation of subsidies for medical aid.

The non-racial SADTU which represents nearly two-thirds of school teachers in South Africa is one of the founding partners of the Joint Education Trust, established in 1992 by leaders from South Africa’s corporate World, political parties, trade unions and representative organisations of Black business. JET Education Services is an independent, non-profit organisation that works with government, the private sector, international development agencies and education institutions to improve the quality of education and the relationship between education and skills development.

JET had supported in-service training for nearly 35 000 teachers, resulting in an improvement in the quality of education for nearly 2.5 million learners across South Africa, from pre-school to adult education classes and from rural, farm and urban schools. SADTU is also a member of Education International (EI), the global union federation of organisations representing 30 million teachers and other education workers through 394 member organisations in 171 countries and territories.

In October 2010, SADTU celebrated its 20th anniversary. The union had 240 000 members, which made it the largest trade union in the public sector. On 10 December 2008, the union launched a quality learning and teaching campaign, and on 2 October 2008 the union launched the promoting teacher well-being campaign. In 2013, SADTU launched a Promotion of Quality Public Education Campaign which was in line with the SADTU’s 2030 Vision’s strategic pillar of Creating a Learning Nation.

The union is an affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the biggest trade union federation in South Africa. Sadtu became the Congress of South African Trade Unions’ (Cosatu’s) education union, to a certain extent to lead change in the education system in South Africa and to a certain extent to deal with the welfare of teachers as workers.

The current leadership of SADTU includes Thobile Ntola as President (expelled), Mugwena Maluleka as general secretary, Nkosana Dolopi as Deputy general secretary, Magope Maphila as Vice President, Lindiwe Matshwane as National Treasurer, Mpule Dorcus Sekabate as Vice president (Gender), and Veronica Hofmeester Vice President (Education). 

• Amtaika, A. (2013). Replaying memories of the past: Reflecting on the South African teachers’ 2010 protest, in International NGO journal. Vol, 8(5), pp.108-116.
• John. S. Levin and Terri Seddon (2013). Educators, professionalism, and politics: global transitions, national space and professional projects. World year book of education. Routledge: Canada.
• IOL News, (2004), It was the biggest strike in history ”“ Sadtu, from Independent Online, [online], Available at [Accessed: 14 August 2014]
• Seekoei, K., (2010), Union lords, not idealist, running show at Sadtu, from Mail & Guardian, [online], Available at [Accessed: 13 August 2014]
• Cosatu, (2014), Sadtu pay tribute to its founder comrade Poobie Naicker, from Cosatu, 3 April [online], Available at [Accessed: 14 August 2014]
• SADTU, National Office Bearers, from South African Democratic Teachers Union, [online], Available at [Accessed: 14 August 2014]
• SADTU secretariat, (2010), The South African democratic teachers union’s 2030 vision, from South African Democratic Teachers Union, 15 July [online], Available at [Accessed: 13 August 2014]
• Switzer, L. (1997). South Africa’s alternative press: voices of protest and resistance, 1880 -1960s. Cambridge studies in the history of mass communication. Cambridge University press. 

Last updated : 20-Aug-2014

This article was produced by South African History Online on 20-Aug-2014

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