South Africa: Unions welcome plan for vaccine roll-out for teachers and education personnel

published 24 June 2021 updated 10 August 2021

The Department of Basic Education in South Africa and teacher unions have launched a COVID-19 vaccination programme with the support and participation of Education International affiliates.

South Africa has been severely hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and the virus has struck in waves with infections increasing in the last three weeks. Many teachers and other education workers have been victims of the virus. Although well over two million doses of the vaccines have been administered, it represents a small percentage of the doses needed to vaccinate the protect the population.

In parallel with the health crisis, and as is the case in many countries around the world, a proliferation of fake news and misinformation has marred the efforts of health authorities to combat the virus.

The National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa (NAPTOSA), the National Teachers' Union (NATU), the Professional Educators Union (PEU), and the South African Democratic Teachers' Union (SADTU), the Suid-Afrikaanse Onderwysersunie (SAOU), are working together to share reliable information and support the vaccine rollout for educators.

“Our member organisations in South Africa have been fighting for the safety of teachers, education personnel, and students since the beginning of the pandemic. The fact that teachers and support personnel are among the priority groups for vaccinations shows that unions working together with their governments has a positive impact on the education sector,” stated Education International General Secretary, David Edwards.

SADTU Secretary General and Education International Vice-President, Mugwena Maluleke stressed the importance of prioritising teachers for vaccination efforts as they are on the frontlines and have been first responders since the pandemic began.

"We are quite elated by the preparations and logistics that the department has in place to ensure that our teachers and all education partners are vaccinated," Maluleke told South Africa’s Eyewitness News. “In solidarity with every one of us, if you take the vaccine, you protect your family, your school and you protect your community. So let’s save lives, and let’s take the vaccine,” Maluleke added.

SADTU has been providing daily updates and reliable information to combat “fake news” by SMS to its members on the pandemic and challenges to educators. That network, along with videos and other means of communication is being used to disseminate vaccination information.

“Let’s turn the COVID tide by going to the vaccination sites and vaccinating ourselves to mitigate the impact of COVID-19,” emphasized NATU General Secretary, Cynthia Barnes.

NAPTOSA Executive Director, Basil Manuel recognised that “it is an exciting time, it is a dreadful time. But we are excited because the vaccines are here for all education workers.” His union is giving its full support, he said.

For PEU Motions and Labour Chairperson, Moraseleka Klaas Mohlatlole, the union leadership is here “to indicate to our members that the vaccines are safe and they work. Taking the vaccine will protect you as an educator, your family, your community and the school from COVID-19.”

“We want to express our sincere appreciation to the Department of Basic Education for giving us access to this particular campaign. We urge all members to participate in the vaccination, because it is in the best interest of not only people, but also for the sector as a whole,” SAOU Chief Executive, Kris Klopper added.

In October 2020, South Africa and India proposed to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights to enable additional production of badly needed vaccines in developing countries. Education International supports waiver, but opposition remains from many manufacturing nations. Although some of the richest nations have pledged to make more vaccines available internationally, commitments remain far short of meeting needs.

Education International and UNESCO have called for teachers and education support personnel to be prioritised for vaccinations, as so many are risking their health and their lives, working without the necessary sanitary protocols in place.

“The pandemic has accentuated worldwide inequalities, including in education. The inequitable access to vaccines will prolong this injustice, put education staff in danger, and deny the full right to education to millions of students. COVID-19 is a global challenge that requires a global response. In such a disaster, there are no grounds, either in terms of values or self-interest, for nationalism or crisis profiteering to triumph over public health,” Edwards concluded.