JOHANNESBURG South Africa's African National Congress wants to make strikes illegal for teachers as it tries to improve a creaking education system and woo young voters before next year's election
A senior official described the strikes, which waste weeks of teaching time each year, as threatening the "survival of society", setting the ruling party on a collision course with its traditional union allies.
The 101-year-old liberation movement that ended white minority rule in 1994 is turning its focus on the increasingly important constituency of people born since the end of apartheid.
Many of these so-called "Born Frees", who will be voting for the first time in 2014, have no emotional links to the ANC and are disenchanted with the corruption that is taking root in Africa's biggest economy.
A World Economic Forum survey on the quality of mathematics and science education put South Africa at the bottom of a list of 62 countries surveyed in 2012 - the legacy of an apartheid education system designed to churn out menial black workers.
Many South Africans also complain about the quality of an education system in which schools grapple with a shortage of teachers and basic materials.
The ANC's top decision-making body said on Monday it wanted to classify teaching an "essential service", making strikes illegal, and would roll out a policy of wage subsidies for apprentice workers that unions have blocked because of concerns employers will use it to get rid of expensive, older employees.
"If you disrupt education, though you are not threatening life and limb, you do threaten the growth and the survival of society," ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe said in comments that could upset the party's cozy relationship with the unions.
"Society must take education as an essential service. It must be difficult or almost impossible to disrupt education," he told a news conference.
The South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) said the ANC was looking only at the symptoms rather than the cause of the malaise in education: a badly trained work force, a lack of teaching materials and - in some cases - a lack of classrooms.
Last year, hundreds of pupils took national final exams even though the government had failed to provide text books for the whole year.
"You are dealing with an irritant, which is not the main problem of the failure of the education system per se. It is the wrong remedy for the diagnosis," said Mugwena Maluleke, general secretary of SADTU, which has 260,000 members.
Mantashe said the ANC had resolved its differences with the powerful COSATU union federation over plans to help employers finance the costs of taking on young and inexperienced workers.
COSATU objects to the plan, which was included in last year's budget, saying it will be exploited and used to push out older workers.
"There is no conflict between COSATU and ANC," Mantashe said, without providing details. "If anybody wanted to see blood on the floor, there will be no blood on the floor."
With its 2-million workers, COSATU is a powerful voting bloc that helped President Jacob Zuma ascend to power in 2009 but the government's failure to introduce more worker-friendly legislation has put at odds with the biggest labor federation.
No date has been set for the election, but it is expected in April or May 2014.