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The “death penalty” for 94 families by Unitrans

A Constitutional Court ruling against multinational Unitrans Fuel and Chemical was supposed to save 94 families who are on the brink of starvation.

Instead Unitrans is still trying to figure out how ‘to implement a very simple judgment’ which said that the company unlawfully fired 94 drivers.

In September the highest court in the land ruled that Unitrans unlawfully fired the drivers six years ago and should reinstate them. The company was also ordered to remunerate the drivers for back pay.

The drivers welcomed the ruling as a long-awaited victory. But the feeling of elation soon passed as they realised that this was only the beginning of protracted negotiations that have devastated their families.

Some have gone years, never knowing where their next meal would come from. Children’s dreams of a better future than that of their fathers – of one day being able to provide for their families – have been stunted. The financial impact was just too much pressure for some families, who were left torn apart in its wake.

During his ruling, Justice Mlungisi Zondo was scathing of Unitrans saying that the evidence brought before the Constitutional Court showed that the workers were not dismissed for misconduct but for operational reasons, to protect the company’s business.

Zondo added that Unitrans had effectively given the drivers a “death penalty” for exercising their right to strike.

“Dismissal as a sanction for misconduct is a sanction of last resort. It has sometimes been referred to as the death penalty. This is said in light of the harsh consequences it may have on an employee who is dismissed,” said Zondo in his judgment.

Some of the workers have died during the six years and others have even thought of committing suicide.

The Mail and Guardian spoke to some of the drivers who have fought for years to be reinstated; all they want is to be able to provide for their families again.

But when you’re poor the wheels of justice turn very slowly.

The driver’s stories

Themba Nkosi
Losing a son

Sthembiso Hopewell Nkosi was the apple of his father’s eye. He completed his studies to be a teacher just after Unitrans fired his father. As soon as he began work – as an assistant at a school in rural Kwa-Zulu Natal – he had to start shouldering the burden of supporting his younger siblings. It was the only way to make sure that they didn’t have to drop out of school. He sent money to his parents regularly.

“My son had to take up a responsibility that was never his. He took care of all of us,” said Nkosi.

But the worst was yet to come. Last year, Sthembiso became ill but his father could not afford to take him to a specialist who would be able to diagnose and treat him.

“We knew it was getting worse but I think what made his stress even more was this whole situation with Unitrans and that his father was not working. Who would take care of the family?”

Nkosi tried to find work as a driver but was told on numerous occasions that there was no way another company would hire him or any of his colleagues. Companies were afraid to touch them, fearing Unitrans’ situation would befall them too.

Two weeks before the Constitutional Court ruled against Unitrans, Nkosi’s son died. “If I wasn’t a man I would cry,” he said, stricken.

Nkosi’s eyes wander off. He won’t forgive himself for not being able to save his son.

“No one can truly believe the level of stress we have been under. Unitrans believes we are only making noise and trying to cause trouble. We are dying alive.”

Wellington Ngedle
A dream deferred

When the strike started, Wellington Ngedle was at the forefront and he’s stayed there since. Unlike some of the other drivers, he chose to follow the case closely – it’s been six years.

“I didn’t work. My job was to put pressure on the lawyers and report back to the workers. I told my comrades that we would win this case and we have. All I asked is that they help me with transport money when I had to travel.”

But at home, there is no brave face. Here the reality sets in.

His eldest daughter, who passed matric in 2014, is shy and soft spoken. But her disappointment is tangible. She wanted to study financial management – and she had the required grades. But there was simply no money for her to study.

She begged, pleaded, filled in forms … But her future was decided without her. She had to find a job.

Ngedle laughs hollowly when he speaks about his children and the dreams he had for them.

He looks at his shoes; there’s a story to tell. “I patched my shoes until there was nothing left to patch. This is the first pair of shoes I have bought since this whole thing started.”

Johannes Sindani
How he lost his family

The elderly driver lost his wife and his two children had to quit school.

“My wife couldn’t take it anymore.”

He speaks of how Unitrans’ actions left him and his family destitute.

Sindani believes the strike was long time coming, because he and many other drivers had complained of the salary disparities. He would be paid about R20 an hour yet a driver doing the same job in Durban would be paid more than R30 an hour.

“It’s as if everything was fine one day and the next we were forced to sleep on empty stomachs. My wife and I still talk and there is no bad blood, but I could no longer provide for her or my children. She couldn’t take it anymore and she went back home.”

Sindani spends his time tending to his small garden where he grows herbal medicine because he can’t afford medical bills.

His two children are too old now to go back to school but he still feels like he failed them.

“I will never forgive Unitrans. It has taken my life, wife and children away from me. I can’t even go back to church because I haven’t paid tithes in years. They have taken everything. Why? They wanted to make money from us.”

Zizipho Sishuba

A 19-year-old soft, spoken young woman wanted to study to become a chartered accountant.

But her future was written in the labour dispute her father, the only breadwinner, had with Unitrans.

She graduated from high school two years before her 18th birthday. But she was not going to get a head start in life. At 19 she had to find a job and support her family because Unitrans unlawfully fired her father and she had no funds to take her dreams further.

Jonas Mofokeng
Living on a grant

Jonas Mofokeng’s dream of moving his wife and children into their own home were dashed by the mass firing by Unitrans in 2010.

Today he lives in his father’s modest home. His father retired over a decade ago but has now had to assist his eldest son to take care of his family.

“Its not easy, I have children and a wife to take care of. Even though I do got piece jobs for a month or two, I would not have much else for the rest of the year.”

Mofokeng is worried about how he is going to be able to afford his daughters new school year.

“My wife was finishing off her teaching degree when this mess started. She couldn’t complete her studies. Now again, my children have to go to school like everyone else but where am I going to get the money for them to start grade one?”

There is pressure for him to make a plan and he stresses most nights about whether he will be able to take his children to school.

“Can you imagine the stress of thinking about this day in and day out. We won the case, Unitrans must pay us and give us our jobs back.”

As Unitrans is still trying to figure out how to implement a simple judgment, Mofokeng is trying to figure out how he will fund his children’s education.

Read the full story here: Unitrans stalls over vital back pay

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Athandiwe Saba
Athandiwe Saba

Athandiwe Saba is a multi award-winning journalist who is passionate about data, human interest issues, governance and everything that isn’t on social media. She is an author, an avid reader and trying to find the answer to the perfect balance between investigative journalism, online audiences and the decline in newspaper sales. It’s a rough world and a rewarding profession.

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