If Tshwane does not stand firm, it will fall

Cilliers Brink writes on what is at stake in the current violent strike

If the City of Tshwane does not stand its ground, the capital city will fall

15 September 2023

Last weekend, the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (SAMWU), an affiliate of COSATU, launched a campaign of “mass action” in the Free State. Their grievance, perfectly legitimate, is that Free State municipalities do not pay workers on time. They also withhold pension contributions to fund operational expenditure. Corruption and mismanagement, no doubt, turned these municipalities into basket cases. But so did the fear of SAMWU. For years, these municipalities have had to pay above-inflation salary increases reached by collective bargaining and accepted by default.

Even after the national lockdown made it incredibly difficult for residents to pay any bills, these municipalities did not make any effort to seek exemption from the increases.

The Free State situation is exactly what the City of Tshwane Council tried to avoid in June 2023 when we passed a budget with a 0% salary increase for councillors and employees, and authorised the City Manager to apply to the bargaining council for exemption from these increases.

The collective agreement makes provision for exemption, but it is unclear whether the South African Local Government Bargaining Council has ever granted such an application. In fact, from the reasoning of the bargaining council’s decision, it would seem that the commissioner thought that granting any exemption from a collective pay deal would undermine the very process of collective bargaining.

The City is taking that decision on review to the Labour Court, not just because there are grounds for review, but because we simply do not know where the R600 million for salary increasers will come from. We have already reduced expenditure on contracted services and scrapped all capital projects that cannot be funded by grants from the national government.

If we were to pay the salary increases the unions demand, we will find ourselves in the same position as most municipalities in the Free State. We will either have to cut services to residents or pay employees like we pay Eskom, as and when we can, dependent on cash flow.

For refusing to take the slipway to financial and institutional ruin, the City has been struck with a campaign of violence, including cases of arson, assault, intimidation, wilful destruction of property and attempted murder. It is not that there is mass participation in SAMWU’s strike.

At its height, only about 20% to 30% of employees actively participated in a stay-away. The problem is the violence directed at those, including employees and contractors, who refuse to participate in the strike.

The strike broke out in the last week of July 2023 when SAMWU marched on the municipal headquarters in Pretoria. The march turned violent as different factions of the union turned on each other. Several people were arrested for public drunkenness, assault and other petty crimes. Unfortunately, that was when the arrests stopped, with the South African Police Service treating the matter as if it were an internal security issue for the municipality to deal with.

Since then, four municipal vehicles and two waste removal trucks have been firebombed. Several municipal vehicles, including buses, have been stoned, and at one depot the managers found that all trucks had their tires slashed the night before. Multiple offices and clinics have been invaded and forcibly closed, while almost all of the City’s garden refuse and waste disposal sites have been set alight multiple times. In one case, a fire hydrant was even cemented closed to prevent emergency services from doing their work.

Each of these instances of criminality has a chilling effect, not just on the City’s workforce, but also on contractors. Most of the City’s household waste collection is farmed out to contractors, and when there is an attack on one of the vehicles, contractors usually withdraw their entire fleet from the affected area. This causes waste and collection backlogs to pile up, raising the frustration of residents to fever pitch. The same happens to work teams that have to attend to water and electricity outages.

When a municipal employee (a SAMWU member no less) was shot by a group of people who had earlier warned him not to work, I thought that this would be the turning point. I was wrong. Then when weeks later two waste removal trucks were torched in the space of 48 hours, I again thought that public pressure and law enforcement would force SAMWU’s leadership to call a responsible end to the violence. I was wrong again. It is at this point that we concluded that SAMWU had either lost control of the strike or that the strike had been hijacked by forces outside SAMWU’s control.

As the violence escalated, so did the political demands for the City not to act against striking workers, to reinstate those who had been dismissed and to pay salaries to those who had not been working. Even the ANC, who had supported the budget and the 0% salary increase, jumped on the bandwagon.

They have demanded a “political solution”, which in essence would mean the City Council backtracking on our budget, appropriating money we do not have and interfering with the prerogative of the City Manager to enforce discipline. If this were to happen, the City would be financially devastated as would the rule of law, violent crime having been legitimated as a legitimate and effective bargaining tool.

Two weeks ago, a reporter from a Sunday newspaper called me for comments on possible intergovernmental intervention in the City. A source had told the reporter, so he later wrote, that the ANC Gauteng government was waiting for the outcome of the bargaining council before deciding whether to place the City under administration. The last time that happened was in 2020, at the height of the lockdown.

Provincial “intervention” provided cover for a faction of the ANC to take over the City without having won an election, and it did considerable harm. The “intervention” was only terminated by court action, and the City ended the 2020/21 financial year with an operating deficit exceeding R4 billion.

And so, the SAMWU strike and the campaign of violence and criminality that characterised it might just create the pretext for a faction of the ANC in Gauteng to try to take over government in Tshwane.

This makes it all the more important for the City to stand our ground, because if we do not, there might not be any ground left for anyone else (including the national government) to stand on if their democratic authority is challenged in a similar way.

Cilliers Brink is Executive Mayor of Tshwane