The Eastern Cape education department might have to forfeit assets if it does not pay them soon.
State assets remained under threat this week after the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) gave notice that it would attach them if the Eastern Cape education department did not pay 13 teachers their salaries.
“If these teachers are not paid, we will ask the sheriff to attach the [education] MEC’s vehicle — which we can assume to be considerably luxurious and valuable,” the centre’s regional director, Sarah Sephton, said about the move — one that is unprecedented in education litigation (“Lawyers turn up the heat”, Mail & Guardian, May 24).
In the latest of a string of court orders forcing the department to fill thousands of empty teacher posts, the Grahamstown High Court ordered it on June 6 to make 108 of these temporary posts permanent, and to pay the teachers working in them. But the department missed its 30-day deadline to do so.
The LRC then acted on a clause it asked to be included in the court order that allows it to apply to attach the state’s assets to cover the debt of these salaries. The centre wrote to the province’s treasury last week, giving it the mandatory notice of 14 days to pay six teachers who had not had salaries since April.
The department’s erratic payment of some teachers under this pressure, and its failure to pay others, meant that the picture was changing almost daily this week. The LRC received proof of payment on Wednesday of the six teachers’ salaries, but found out on Tuesday that a further 13 had also not been paid. It sent a second letter to the treasury about this.
The department has until July 25 to pay or forfeit assets to cover the outstanding amount. The LRC also found out on Tuesday that there are apparently 500 other temporary teachers who are not included in the current court action, and who also have not been paid. It is preparing separate court papers on behalf of these teachers to “ensure that all unpaid teachers have a method to recover their debt other than waiting in vain for the department to pay them”, Sephton said.
Nomaphelo Pinini is a teacher at Alfonso Arries Primary School in Port Elizabeth. She has not been paid a salary since March and cannot afford to pay her son’s school fees.
“My son’s school sent a letter of demand the other day, saying they will take me to the lawyers if I carry on not paying his fees,” she said.
Pinini said a department official told her on Tuesday that the money had been paid into her bank account.
“I have two children. My parents are helping me, but they are both pensioners so this is very hard for them. The department is playing hide-and-seek with our salaries, but I work seven hours a day. I have a right to get paid.”
The LRC said some of the unpaid teachers who were part of the court action “could not pay their bills, had borrowed money out of desperation, and had eventually been financially blacklisted”.
Unathi Vimbani also teaches at the Alfonso Arries school. Besides not getting a salary since March, he and other teachers also did not get paid for nine months last year. “The community protested and closed the school and only then did the department pay our salaries. But now again this year they aren’t paying,” he said.
“We’ve been to the district office to talk about this numerous times. They tell us ‘give us your forms’, we give them the forms, then a few months later we hear the forms are still sitting there.”
Vimbani comes from Qunu. To be able to pay his rent in Port Elizabeth, he has been relying on hand-outs from family and friends.
Sephton said: “It’s terrible that these days a court order means so little that we actually have to preempt that the department will not comply with it and have to think of innovative ways of using the court to get the department to do its job. It looks like the only way to secure payment is to make it the provincial treasury’s task.”
Departmental spokesperson Loyiso Pulumani confirmed that the initial six teachers had been paid but did not know about the other 13 teachers who are also part of the court order.
“The failure to pay teachers’ salaries is completely unacceptable,” Pulumani said. “We know that most people live from one pay cheque to the next. The MEC and the head of department send out their sincere apologies,” he said.
“The problem lies in the bureaucracy. You have to get authorisation for payments from different offices, and all of these have their own processes that they need to follow. We have centralised payments now, which we think is helping.”
He said it was “extremely unfortunate” that the LRC had threatened to attach the state’s assets if teachers weren’t paid.
“We are working with the LRC. We haven’t been ignoring this deadline. We have indicated to them where we have challenges, so it’s unnecessary to take it this far.”
Picture Caption: Financial burden: Some teachers in Port Elizabeth have not been paid since March. Photo by: Madelene Cronjé
By: Victoria John
Victoria John is a Rhodes University graduate
Source: Mail & Guardian