After nearly three months of waiting to be paid, financial relief is in sight for education assistants from 11 Eastern Cape schools.
The assistants have been struggling for months to get the Eastern Cape Department of Education’s Nelson Mandela Bay Metro district office to pay them the money it owes. They held two protests in February to get the department’s attention.
The assistants are part of a government-led recovery plan to create more than 300 000 jobs for young people. They signed three-month contracts with the district office, expecting payment of R3 500 a month.
“We were meant to be paid at the month end of December, but nothing came. Then we were promised that at the end of January the money would be in, but again nobody received their pay,” said an assistant who asked to remain anonymous.
“We are here now demanding answers. This situation has been stressful because when some of us go to work, we use public transport. We often have to lend money in order to get there. I am a breadwinner in my family and this has been hard on me, people are looking to me to provide for them,” said the 23-year-old during one of the protests.
After protesting for hours, the department attended to their grievances. Stationed at a departmental hall, the crowd waited for answers from three government officials.
“We are told that the department had a problem with payment codes and that they will fix the matter and pay us as early as next week, but with them you never know. We’ve been waiting all this time just for payment codes,” said another assistant.
Key role in education
Youth employment is part of the government’s 2030 National Development Plan. Education assistants are required to help teachers with administration and technical duties, as well as provide an after-school programme for learners who need support with homework, sport activities or cultural events. Now, their responsibilities also include ensuring that learners keep to Covid-19 protocols such as physical distancing, monitoring temperatures and sanitisation.
“Depending on the quintile of the school, there are 10 to 20 of us in each school,” said a 24-year-old assistant. Schools are categorised into five quintiles based on their wealth and resources, with quintile 5 schools the most affluent.
“We work tirelessly helping teachers each day, yet our hard work leaves us with nothing to show for it. What is happening at the department is not fair. I came here with two other assistants and our school principal as early as December. This was after the closure of schools on the 15th. We were told by the department that they only received our contracts 20 January 2021 even though we signed them in December 2020.
“We were told to go to HR [human resources] and enquire. We did that, then HR told us to go to the finance department. They said that they see our names and that we will be paid on 24 January 2021, but that date came and went and no money reflected,” said the assistant.
Persistence pays off
It took two protests and weekly enquiries by the assistants to get the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro office to respond. At the second protest, assistants said they were willing to sleep outside the department’s office in Gqeberha until officials attended to their request.
“Our persistence seems to be paying off,” said another 24-year-old assistant after the department told them on 3 March that it would start the payment run, and that it takes three days for payments to go through.
The Nelson Mandela Bay Metro district office declined to comment and referred queries to communications officer Mtima Mali, the provincial education spokesperson, who could not be reached.
But some assistants said they finally received their overdue stipends on 4 March. Others had been paid as of the first week of March, while yet others await payment runs scheduled for the end of the month.
“I got paid from the first week of March run, which is a welcome relief for me and my family,” said one of the assistants.