No winners when a strike becomes a political toy


No winners when a strike becomes a political toy

On one hand, a mayor trying to fix the metro's dire finances. On the other, angry municipal workers who say they are entitled to a pay rise. In the middle, a city vanishing under garbage mountains. SONJA CARSTENS takes a closer look at the capital.


THE Jacaranda City is a dismal place where garbage removal vehicles have to be accompanied by police vehicles to prevent them from being set on fire.

On one side there are enraged municipal workers who did not receive the 5.4% wage increase to which they, like thousands of counterparts nationwide, are entitled. On the other is Cilliers Brink, the DA mayor of Tshwane, who is determined to rectify the city's dire budget deficit of R3-billion. Tshwane cannot afford to pay an additional R600-million for salaries.

Brink and his family have received death threats. A case was filed at Brooklyn police station when a plot to kidnap his wife came to light.

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In community policing forum WhatsApp groups, residents are asked to pray for Brink and his family. He and his team are working hard to empty all the city's trash bins.

Overnight, the 36-year-old Brink has become the face of justice and righteousness.

The civil rights group AfriForum is assisting with garbage removal but is using the opportunity to inform taxpayers about their “rights". AfriForum says it is unfair that ratepayers are having to pay for services that are not delivered.

Tshwane council has already dismissed 122 members of the South African Municipal Workers' Union (Samwu) because they were striking unlawfully and inciting or intimidating their colleagues.

This is a drop in the bucket compared to the 29,000 employees the city has, but 122 primary breadwinners can no longer put food on the table.

Many municipal vehicles have been vandalised, and city bus services remain suspended out of fear for commuters' safety.

Samwu's striking members have not received payment. Where it was clear that they were at work but engaged in a go-slow, the salary cutoff was rolled back to recover the salaries of 450 workers.

The labour court has granted a permanent interdict against the striking workers, meaning those who continue to strike are in contempt of court.

TOP LEFT: Garbage in the streets. TOP RIGHT: Bronkhorstspruit's municipal offices closed on September 7. BOTTOM: Samwu members protest in a car park near the municipal offices.
TOP LEFT: Garbage in the streets. TOP RIGHT: Bronkhorstspruit's municipal offices closed on September 7. BOTTOM: Samwu members protest in a car park near the municipal offices.

Virtual meetings 

Council meetings have been held virtually since September 1 after chaos erupted between EFF and DA councillors. The EFF insisted the dismissed workers be reinstated. EFF and DA council members allegedly physically assaulted each other.

The ANC supports the strikers but admits there is no money to pay them what they are demanding.

The metro council is going to court to challenge the findings of the South African Local Government Bargaining Council (SALGBC) that the metro council cannot deviate from the last year of the multi-year wage agreement for municipal workers.

Senior commissioner Eleanor Hambidge found that Tshwane is clearly facing serious challenges and struggling to pay creditors. However, there is a “slight" improvement in the city's budget projection, and therefore the increase must be paid.

Tshwane considers the ruling absurd.

This means the wage dispute, like the civil service wage dispute three years earlier, could drag on for years depending on who has the most money for legal costs.

After eight weeks, what started a wage dispute has turned into a combustible political ballgame of violence, crime and vandalism.

There are no winners; only fed-up residents who are tired of paying R50 for private service providers to empty their bins only to hear that their rubbish is being unlawfully dumped on other ratepayers' properties.

Meanwhile, contractors are being used as meter readers, resulting in residents receiving massive municipal bills because meters are being read for the first time in a long while. However, few taxpayers realise exactly what is at stake for both parties on the battlefield.

The irony of a city full of rubbish.
The irony of a city full of rubbish.


The Cosatu-affiliated union is the majority union in the bargaining council representing workers at 257 municipalities. This means that if Samwu signs a wage agreement with the South African Local Government Association (Salga), the employer organisation, it becomes binding for all municipal workers nationwide.

Municipalities must comply or, like Tshwane, apply for exemption to SALGBC.

Solly Msimanga, the DA's candidate for the position of Gauteng premier in next year's election, says the metro council is one of several municipalities that applied for exemption. However, the opposition is only as fierce in Tshwane.

Samwu, however, has a bone to pick with Brink. The dynamic mayor is also determined to combat corruption. In June, Brink asked motorists to take photos and videos of corrupt Tshwane metro officials. The police then investigated criminal cases against more than 150 of them.

Most of these officials are also Samwu members. While they are not on strike, they are often absent when violence breaks out. They are spectators on the sidelines.

Samwu believes that taking videos and photos puts the lives of metro officers at risk. The union's objections fell on deaf ears, but the silent resistance against Brink continues after months.

Unemptied bins in Garsfontein.
Unemptied bins in Garsfontein.
Rubbish on the corner of Johannes Ramokhoase Street and Es'kia Mphahlele Drive.
Rubbish on the corner of Johannes Ramokhoase Street and Es'kia Mphahlele Drive.

Brink, probably without realising it, has dealt a serious blow to the essence of Samwu's existence. A traditional union can survive only if it can negotiate better wages and working conditions for its members. If Samwu cannot do this, it no longer has teeth.

Worldwide, union membership is dwindling, and South Africa is not immune to this trend. Only 23% of the country's workers are union members.

Samwu's union federation, Cosatu, feels the impact of this trend. Its national strike on July 6 against rising unemployment, wage cuts, poverty and inequality had a poor turnout. Thus, nothing came of Cosatu's warning to Tshwane that the federation would “immediately" mobilise its members to confront the council if the wage increase was not paid.

The harsh reality is that the cost of living has become so high due to load-shedding that very few workers are willing to forfeit a day's pay to go on strike.

South Africa's wounds are still fresh from the loss of life caused by the illegal strike in March by Nehawu, the Cosatu-affiliated public service union.

It is inconceivable that no disciplinary action has been taken against healthcare workers who occupied hospitals and clinics and turned away patients. Most of Nehawu's members' work has been declared essential under the Public Service Act, meaning they are not allowed to strike.

The mayor of Tshwane, Cilliers Brink, listens to the city manager, Johan Mettler, at a media conference about the municipal strike.
The mayor of Tshwane, Cilliers Brink, listens to the city manager, Johan Mettler, at a media conference about the municipal strike.

Brink and the DA

Brink finds himself caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

The DA remains in power in Tshwane pending a review of a court ruling in the Constitutional Court.

The Pretoria High Court ruled on April 29 that the decision to dissolve the council was unlawful. It also prohibited ANC and EFF councillors from walking out of meetings where important decisions benefiting the city's residents were to be made. And it put an end to the administration under which Tshwane was placed.

The decision is under review by the Gauteng MEC for cooperative governance. Until then, the other parties are waiting for the slightest misstep to remove the DA from office.

Brink is acutely aware that all eyes are on him, and he works diligently to win the hearts of residents.

His colleagues say he is arrogant. Residents perceive him as unwavering, honest and straightforward.

Brink is not interested in the Gauteng legislature's proposed mediation of the wage dispute. Tshwane still pays municipal workers' salaries on time. Brink does not want to pay workers as Tshwane must pay Eskom — if and when cashflow permits.

He refuses to yield to the pressure of petitions demanding his resignation; instead, he sees an opportunity to take on Eskom if Tshwane is not allowed to independently generate an additional 1,000MW of power.

Only time will tell the outcome of this battle.

♦ VWB ♦

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