Strikes continue as minister warns against violence

Labour Minister Membathisi Mdladlana warned municipal workers on Tuesday that violent protests would “only harden attitudes” as a national strike entered its second day.

The strike action continued despite the South African Local Government Association’s (Salga) new 13% offer in response to union demands for 15%.

“I call on all those involved in these unlawful actions to immediately observe discipline as they are demonising the real concerns of the majority of the workers. Violence can only harden attitudes,” Mdladlana said in a statement.

South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) general secretary Mthandeki Nhlapo said workers were staging protest marches again in several cities on Tuesday.

At the same time, the union would consult its members on Tuesday to get a mandate on the latest wage offer.

Fellow union, the Independent Municipal and Allied Trade Union (Imatu), said negotiations were set to continue on Thursday.

On Monday, 25 protesters were arrested for public violence, malicious damage to property and organising illegal gatherings as unruly workers took to the streets, harassing street vendors and emptying rubbish bins.

Nhlapo claimed more than 150 000 workers from both unions out of a workforce of 190 000 stayed away from work on Monday.

However, Salga chairperson Amos Masondo, who is also Johannesburg mayor, claimed only 60% of the workforce took part in the strike, which left Johannesburg streets dotted with unremoved rubbish bins and bus commuters stranded.

“We appreciate that yesterday [Monday] at least 60% of our essential-service workers turned up for work and we regret that 40% did not,” Masondo told reporters at a press briefing, saying these figures were from municipalities countrywide.

Protesters took to the streets again in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban on Tuesday, with most marches seeming to be more peaceful than Monday’s.

This came after Mdladlana’s “strong condemnation”, issued on Tuesday morning.

“The supposedly peaceful wage increment demonstrations deteriorated into chaos as scores of marchers were seen causing havoc—looting, harassing street vendors and spilling refuse on the streets in most of the country’s major cities yesterday [Monday],” he said in a statement.

Several protesters were injured when police fired rubber bullets to disperse angry crowds on Monday.

Mdladlana said the bad behaviour was tarnishing “whatever genuine grievances that they had” and undermining the “very good cause of their right to strike”.

KwaZulu-Natal local government minister Willies Mchunu said the strike was straining the employer’s already depleted finances.

“Our concerns are that this is adding more financial strain to the already depleted financial resources in our municipalities.

“It is against this context that we urge all parties to narrow their differences and find the middle ground as a matter of urgency.”

Most municipalities were operating below capacity, said Mchunu.

Economist Mike Schussler estimated the strike was costing the country in the region of R15-million a day.

“I can’t work out the damage of all the shops and the traders.
But the cost is around R15-million a day in workers’ wages, I guess,” he told the South African Press Association.

The longer the strike continued, the more the cost would escalate.

“By the second week it becomes a huge problem, because then a person pays out of his own pocket to remove his rubbish.

“All these factors have to be considered, so R15-million is a little simplistic, but it’s the best we can do at the moment.”

Police “heavy-handed”
Meanwhile, Samwu accused police in the Western Cape of being “heavy-handed” in dealing with striking municipal workers.

“On the whole, the action of workers has been peaceful ... We have had reports of a few isolated incidents of violence, but this seems to have largely been instigated by an unnecessarily heavy-handed approach from the police,” it said in a statement issued by its Western Cape office.

Samwu said police had “unnecessarily harassed workers engaging in lawful pickets in depots from Atlantis to Gugulethu”.

“They have arrested workers in Paarl and Mossel Bay—simply for picketing. It is this type of action which unnecessarily escalates tensions and hardens attitudes,” the union said.

Samwu deputy president, Xolile Nxu, said the mayor of Vredenburg on the West Coast had to send away the police on Monday “because he could see that they were provoking the situation”.

The union insisted it did not condone violence, but did “understand the trashing”.—Sapa

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