Bitter lesson for educational assistants

The Department of Basic Education’s initiative to create employment for the youth has been blighted by late payments and a lack of communication.

Sipenathi Lucwaba, from Tsolo in the Eastern Cape, thought his life would change for the better a few months ago when he became one of the thousands of general school assistants who enrolled in an employment initiative administered by the Department of Basic Education.

The initiative is part of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s special employment stimulus programme announced in October last year and aims to place 200 000 teaching assistants and 100 000 general assistants in schools. Overall, the stimulus programme aims to create 800 000 job opportunities by the end of the financial year on 31 March. 

“Education assistants will support teachers in the classroom and provide extra support to learners,” the department said in a media statement. “General school assistants will help schools to comply with Covid-19 protocols while ensuring that teaching and learning take place in a safe, secure and hygienic environment.” 

But it seems all is not well with the initiative, and some participants have not been paid the stipend of R3 500 they were promised, leading to frustration.

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Among them is 22-year-old Lucwaba, a general school assistant at his alma mater, Tsolo High School, who has not received any money for December or January and doesn’t know why. 

“We need to get paid. They must pay us on time,” Lucwaba said. “They must give us the respect we deserve. Right now, we feel disrespected and exploited. Imagine getting up every day, going to work and then, at the end of the month, you come home with nothing.”

Lucwaba, who is in his first year of studying for a bachelor of science degree in the Eastern Cape, had been looking forward to playing a meaningful role in the initiative and gaining work experience as well as earning some money. Now, he’s seething with frustration. “Emotionally, I feel abused,” he said angrily. 

From high hopes to letdown

Another disgruntled participant in the initiative is Asanda Mdingi, 31, from Tsomo in the Eastern Cape. Mdingi, a third-year bachelor of commerce student at the University of South Africa, has been working as a teaching assistant at Jongizizwe Nkwenkwezi Senior Secondary School in her hometown. Like Lucwaba, she has not been paid for two months. 

Mdingi had been unemployed before joining the initiative and saw it as potentially giving her work experience as well as an income. She was delighted when her application was successful. At last, she was going to get an opportunity to work with children, and the school being close to her home meant it would be easy to get there and back.

But now Mdingi is bitter about not being paid and not being told why. “No one knows anything. We rely on WhatsApp groups and Facebook groups to get information from other unpaid assistants,” she said.

She claims that some of the department’s statements to the media have been patently false. “There has been no communication [with us] at all. [Department spokesperson] Elijah Mhlanga blocked me on Twitter because I called him out on the lies he tweets,” Mdingi said.

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In a media statement dated 3 February, the department acknowledged the late payment of both teaching and general school assistants and urged those affected to contact the initiative’s coordinators in their provinces to remedy the situation.

But when Mdingi contacted the Eastern Cape coordinator, Lukhanyo Sidiya, she didn’t get a satisfactory response. “Initially, she told me that everyone in my district, Chris Hani East, has been captured and awaiting payments earmarked for 28 January. But instead, on 29 January, they only paid those who had already been paid in December,” she said.

Mdingi says the initiative has been flawed from the start. “We haven’t even received letters of appointment,” she pointed out.

Extending support

Mdingi is now an administrator of a WhatsApp group that aims to provide support to teaching and general school assistants in the Eastern Cape. The group, which has about 230 members, includes assistants who have received their stipends as well as those who have not. The members share their disappointments and frustrations about payments and also advise each other on ways to interact with the department.

It seems clerical errors are causing problems too. One of the members said she was horrified to learn that her documents had not been submitted to the department, which meant her details were not captured in the system. She had to sign a new contract and submit all the requisite documents again. Her advice to the group’s members was to check with the department whether all their details had been properly captured. Another member of the group also complained about not receiving an appointment letter.

Joining in the call for the programme participants to be paid was Andre de Bruyn, spokesperson of the Educators Union of South Africa. During an interview with the Newzroom Afrika channel late in January, he expressed disappointment with the non-payment issue and said the initiative had been marred by serious problems. “Wonderful plan, unfortunately, there were just glitches in the whole process…” 

Malibongwe Mtima, spokesperson for the Eastern Cape’s Department of Education, said the delay in payments was caused by “interdepartmental functioning” and the department was busy “implementing the project and [we] are at 90% in terms of capturing”.

“It has been sorted out. As such, within 20 days since the implementation of the project, by Tuesday 24 December, 28 332 were paid out of 55 000… Those have been getting their monthly stipend since then. The total paid to date is more than 35 000 and we are awaiting the release of function to pay the outstanding anytime now. Should the function be released, their money will reflect within seven days of the payment,” he said.

Stressful situation

But these blunders have caused great unhappiness and stress for the unpaid participants. “I go in and out of depression because I was expecting my money since 18 December. That was before Christmas. You can imagine how horrible my holidays were without being paid,” Mdingi said.

Despite not being compensated, many of the initiative’s participants still feel the obligation to help schools and pupils. They continue in the hope that the situation will be resolved soon. For others, however, the initiative has been nothing but a disappointment.  

Lucwaba says he is fast sinking into debt and would appreciate being paid immediately. “I keep taking loans so I can sustain myself and my needs,” he said. “You get up every day and you use toiletries. How are you going to buy them when they run out when you do not get paid? What are you going to use for transport? We get hungry at work. The clothes I wear need to be cleaned. Where am I going to get soap?”

The Department of Basic Education failed to respond to queries for comment.

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