Public sector unions on a carousel

South African municipal workers can take their pick of unions to join, as breakaways (and breakaways of the breakaways) dot the landscape. (David Harrison, M&G)

South African municipal workers can take their pick of unions to join, as breakaways (and breakaways of the breakaways) dot the landscape. (David Harrison, M&G)

In October last year members of the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) who had been expelled vowed to take back their municipal union from what they believed were thieves – they even formed a lobby group named after the international distress signal, SOS.

But by March 27 this year, the honeymoon was over. A group broke away to form the Municipal and Allied Trade Union of South Africa (Matusa) – forming a breakaway of a breakaway.

What remained of the SOS (short, in this instance, for Save Our Samwu), became the Democratic Municipal and Allied Workers Union of South Africa (Demawusa).

This meant that what was once the Cosatu-aligned Samwu was splintered into three unions.

Ideologically, the two breakaway unions are not very different. And both have their genesis in the SOS movement, comprising a large chunk of Samwu members who left the union amid allegations that the current leadership had abused funds.

And both rebel unions are ideologically aligned to the faction of Cosatu that supports the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), currently expelled from the federation.

But they differ on procedure.
Matusa was anxious to form a new union. Demawusa says it wanted a mandate from its members before it took this step, and so the two unions parted ways.

Matusa’s support is therefore difficult to gauge, although it claims to have received about 600 membership forms – according to papers filed in the Labour Court, where the union found itself this week.

This was after it had previously applied to the department of labour for registration, only to have its application declined as the department said Matusa is not a “genuine” trade union.

The department’s registrar said the union was “established by individuals for their own personal benefit”.

A deputy director in the department, who the court did not name, wrote to the registrar objecting to the union’s establishment for similar reasons. And so the union could not register.

But Matusa appealed this ruling in the Labour Court and won. This week, Judge Anton Steenkamp overturned the registrar’s decision. He said it was clear that the union was established for bona fide reasons.

Steenkamp said Matusa was in a “classic catch-22” situation.

“The registrar did not consider it to be a genuine trade union and therefore refused to register it, but in order to show that it is a genuine trade union by organising workers in local government, signing them up as members, collecting subscriptions, acquiring organisational rights and representing those members’ interests, it has to be registered,” Steenkamp said.

He also noted it would unfairly limit the right to freedom of association if a union could only be called a union if its membership qualified to be members.

The fledgling union, whose leadership was not available for comment this week, has won the battle. It has also potentially paved the way for Demawusa’s registration, although the latter will have held a national elective congress by the time it applies for registration.

The Mail & Guardian understands the two unions are on speaking terms. A reunion is not on the table, but the possibility of future co-operation is not off the table.

Samwu, for its part, isn’t thrilled.

“What did you say its name is?” asked Papikie Mohale, Samwu’s national spokesperson, when the M&G spoke to him this week. “‘Ma-tu-sa.’ It sounds like an STI [sexually transmitted infection],” he said.

He softened that blow by pointing out that the country is a democracy and freedom of association is a constitutional right.

There’s a “but”, though.

“This development is proof of what we have already thought about these individuals,” he said. “They are power-hungry, don’t have the interests of the workers at heart and only are interested in their stomachs.”

He says “these individuals” invented a story about the siphoning off of Samwu’s finances in order to oust leaders they did not like.

Mohale was referring to allegations, denied by Samwu, that R120?million went missing from the union’s coffers. He says these allegations were started by the Matusa faction that broke away from Samwu because of their desire to lead the union.

Samwu “wishes them well”, but one senses that the sentiment is expressed through gritted teeth. “I don’t know how you form a union on the basis of lies,” says Mohale, with little prompting.

“You form a union based on dishonesty. These individuals are characterised by untruthfulness. They failed dismally when they were in the union. It’s doomed to fail.”

Mohale doesn’t know why anyone “in their sober minds” would want to follow them.

The other union on the local governance block, the Independent Municipal and Allied Workers’ Union (Imatu), objected to Matusa’s formation by taking issue with Matusa’s name, which it said is too similar to its own. Judge Steenkamp did not agree. Imatu spokesperson Anja Muller-Deibicht told the M&G this week that her union still believes “Matusa” is too similar to “Imatu”.

“This union was established by a small group of disgruntled ex-Samwu officials and office bearers and while the organisation is registered, it is not a party to the bargaining council and, as such, has no authority to conclude collective agreements and has no organisational rights,” she said.

Mohau Mokgatla, the Gauteng provincial secretary of Demawusa, says the split isn’t good for workers’ interests. But he says it was unavoidable.  

Issues of principle were agreed on. But the SOS members who would become Demawusa wanted to hold a national imbizo on whether or not to form a new union first. 

Matusa members walked away before that. In February, Mokgatla says the two groups tried, and failed, to set up a meeting.

At a shop stewards’ meeting on March 27, it was decided that Demawusa would be formed. But Mokgatla and the others wanted the imbizo to fast-track the need to inform all members and get a proper mandate. Samwu interdicted that imbizo from taking place, and fewer than 100 members arrived.

The meeting eventually took place in May and the mandate was clear: form a new union.

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics.  Read more from Sarah Evans

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