Tshwane strike action: What's at stake for country and coalition?

Cilliers Brink says SALGA determines salary increases regardless of what individual municipalities can afford

Tshwane strike action; what's at stake for the country and coalitions?

9 October 2023

The unprotected and violent strike in the City of Tshwane raises an important question for the rest of the country: do democratically elected leaders still have a chance to make the difficult decisions that are necessary in order to turn around troubled institutions? Or will they be vetoed by powerful interest groups such as public sector unions?

Seen in this light, the labour dispute in Tshwane, characterised by armed attacks on staff, the burning of refuse trucks, and the sabotage of services and infrastructure, is not simply about salary increases, but is rather about the Rule of Law and the ability of governments to carry out a democratic mandate.

Salary increases are not negotiated between individual municipalities and trade unions. Rather, they are negotiated collectively, with municipalities being represented by the SA Local Government Association (SALGA). If union leaders are to be believed, there is an infinite supply of money and salary increases are always payable regardless of a municipality’s financial position or the fact that the collective agreement makes provision for exemptions.

This belief seems to be shared by most bargaining councils and now also by ActionSA which only a few months ago voted in favour of a 0% salary increase in Tshwane. Only if you realise that increases are paid out of residents’ pockets – the same residents who are suffering from loadshedding, a decade of lacklustre economic growth and the damage from COVID-19 lockdowns – will you see things differently. All of these issues have had a devastating impact not only on Tshwane's residents, but also on the metro’s finances.

Amid the COVID lockdowns, the city was placed under provincial administration in 2020. For seven months, an ANC administrator (who happened to be the former mayor of the West Rand District), had power of attorney over appointments, tenders and revenue collection without the supervision of a city council.

At that point, the City, acting under pressure from Unions, had already changed salary scales. The effect of this was to significantly increase personnel costs. Of course, those who insist on salary increases are not saying a word about this enormous windfall for Tshwane officials.

When I was elected mayor in March of this year, I made it clear that difficult decisions had to be taken to prevent the City from being sucked into the vortex of state failure.

The newly appointed mayoral committee, consisting of members of the DA, ActionSA, FF-Plus and the IFP, was confronted with the stark reality of an enormous under-recovery of revenue, and a salary bill that consumes more than 40% of operating costs. Even after significant cuts, the budget we finally presented to the city council was underfunded by at least R3 billion.

Without a funding plan, and a set of measures to achieve full funding within three years, Tshwane ran the risk of losing enormous transfers from national government. One of the plan's most difficult recommendations was a 0% salary increase in this financial year.

The city council passed the budget, the funding plan and the application to be exempted from salary increases (with the support of both ActionSA and the ANC). This decision is not a breach of the collective agreement, because there is a specific provision in the agreement that allows municipalities in financial difficulty to apply for an exemption from salary increases.

It does not make sense for Tshwane to pay salary increases and then end up in the same position as many municipalities in the North West and the Free State; unable to pay salaries on time, or forced to use pension contributions to cover operational expenses.

The City’s exemption application was declined by the bargaining council. But there are strong grounds for taking this decision on review, which we are currently doing. The simple question that the Labor Appeal Court will have to answer is: can the city afford R600 million in salary increases? The obvious answer is: no.

Most other municipalities find themselves in the same position as Tshwane. But unlike Tshwane, these municipalities are more afraid of SAMWU, the ANC-allied municipal workers' union, than of bankruptcy. SAMWU, who is at the forefront of the illegal strike, wants to use Tshwane as an example of what happens when political leaders dare to put the interests of residents first.

The city has already laid off about 127 strikers, and withheld wages from more than 400 employees who report for work but then refuse to carry out instructions. Early on we obtained an interdict against SAMWU. The Labour court later made the interdict permanent, and issued a costs order against SAMWU.

This decisive action is unprecedented in municipalities, but also the least that the City in our circumstances can do. This prevented the complete collapse of services. But from Day One it has been the terror campaign, the attacks on our staff, infrastructure and services, rather than any cover-up, that has wreaked the most havoc.

Every time a waste removal truck is firebombed, the relevant contractor withdraws all its resources from an area. Household garbage then piles up, extending the existing backlog. The same happens with work crews in water and electricity, who then insist on metro police escorts which are not always available.

SAMWU denies any culpability in the terror campaign, yet also claims that there is no strike going on. Still, some insist that the city must now negotiate with the strikers, otherwise services will not improve. Whilst the city is open to discussions and even mediation, those who insist on us “negotiating” are unable to answer two critical questions.

What should you negotiate about when you have already made it clear that there is no money for salary increases, and that the issue can only be settled by the court? And who should you negotiate with during a campaign of violence and crime against the city that unions supposedly know nothing about?

There is a way out of the chaos in Tshwane, but it starts with a government that can stand its ground in the face of a criminal onslaught and it ends with effective law enforcement. It is a test for the effectiveness of democracy, but also for the legitimacy of coalitions whose promise is to govern South Africa better than the ANC.

Cilliers Brink is Executive Mayor of Tshwane.