The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) has rubbished reports of unprecedented levels of violence during its nationwide strike, now in its second week.
Numsa national spokesperson Castro Ngobese said reported levels of violence had been exaggerated and, for the most part, members had practised discipline and unity.
“There have been pockets of violence in some areas, but in most instances those have been elements hijacking our strike for their own ends,” he said.
But employers differ. Last week National Employers’ Association of South Africa (Neasa) chief executive Gerhard Papenfus called the strike “without a doubt one of the bloodiest and most violent to date”.
Neasa represents 1 300 employers, roughly 37% of the industry, making it the single biggest employers’ association in the industry. Papenfus said the fact that there has been close to 100% participation in the strike pointed to the level of coercion being applied by striking workers. Neasa, he said, had received documentary evidence of violence and intimidation in the form of photographs depicting injured workers and damaged property.
“The strikers have been breaking down fences, going into companies and making sure nobody is continuing work. This has seriously infringed the rights of employers to continue operating their businesses,” he said.
Neasa, he said, had successfully applied for a combined interdict representing 20 companies to protect employers against further violence and intimidation, but interdicts were difficult to enforce as the police seemed to be under resourced.
Numsa, meanwhile, has accused police of heavy handedness and liberal use of rubber bullets to contain demonstrating strikers. Ngobese said excessive force had been used in Gauteng, the Eastern Cape, Western Cape and in KwaZulu-Natal.
“We want to remind the SAPS that they are not a bargaining chamber, neither do they have a mandate to mitigate industrial disputes involving workers and employers. Their mandate is to fight crime. Police have been provoking and assaulting our members, who have been striking peacefully and demonstrating in their respective bases.”
Institute for Security Studies senior researcher in the Crime and Justice Programme, Johan Burger, said there was little evidence to either prove or disprove claims of the strike being more violent than preceding ones in the same industry.
“The truth is some of these strikers are committing acts of violence. Their own principals have claimed that there are ‘elements’ of violence but they have been ‘for the most’ part disciplined.
“We do know that there are elements that have perpetrated violence. The police have no choice but to react. There is no evidence to say that police have been provoking the violence and they are not obliged to support the strikers’ cause. I think strikers would look at any action by the police as heavy handed,” Burger said.
According to Numsa, 39 of its members were arrested in the Deal Party industrial area outside Port Elizabeth and detained at the Mount Road police station. It is not clear whether they have been released. The union also said that an employer in Krugersdorp had shot at two of its members outside the company’s premises and the police refused to co-operate when it tried to open a case.
However, police spokesperson Colonel Vishnu Naidoo said that the only major incident of violence he was aware of took place last week in Germiston, where strikers damaged two trucks and injured a bakkie driver and a security guard.