The embattled South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu) wants its defectors to return home. But the union’s call seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
Last week, Samwu announced in a statement that it had signed a unity agreement with trade union federation Cosatu to facilitate talks with disgruntled former members of the union. Under the agreement, all Samwu members who have been suspended or dismissed since 2015 will be reinstated as union members.
This week, the Mail & Guardian sat down with Samwu’s recently elected general secretary, Koena Ramotlou, who laid out the plans to rehabilitate the union.
He was elected in April, after a motion of no confidence in the union’s former national leaders, who were accused by Samwu’s central executive committee of failing to act in “the interest of municipal workers”.
Samwu, with about 160 000 members, is the country’s biggest municipal union. It represents workers at the coal face of service in municipalities. But for half a decade it has been plagued by infighting over allegations of wide-scale financial mismanagement.
Last month, a leaked forensic audit report into Samwu’s finances confirmed that more than R88-million had disappeared from the union’s coffers between 2012 and 2015. Samwu has also haemorrhaged members over the years.
In 2015, two splinter unions — the Municipal and Allied Trade Union of South Africa (Matusa) and the Democratic Municipal and Allied Workers Union of South Africa (Demawusa) — were formed by purged Samwu officials. Some had been expelled from Samwu because they had called for a forensic audit into the union’s finances.
Matusa and Demawusa are affiliates of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), which was formed by expelled Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.
Samwu’s plan to bring itself back from the brink harks back to the ideals of its founding leaders, which include the establishment of a worker-centred union that is united against the privatisation of municipal services.
Ramotlou said: “We require grounded leadership on exactly what we are supposed to be doing as an organisation. Most importantly, we must look at the value we put on worker issues. That requires the leadership to refocus those within the organisation.
“We don’t all have to agree, but at least there must be principles that we are driving the union towards.”
He said Samwu’s current leaders want to restore the union to how it was under its founding president, Petrus Mashishi, who died last year.
Also a founding member of Cosatu, Mashishi railed against corruption, outsourcing and failed service delivery, which he warned would weaken the federation and its alliance partners.
In practical terms, Ramotlou said restoration means guarding the union from private entities, which he said drive corruption.
“From our assessment now, what destroys the organisation … is having service providers in the union. Because they come with different interests, they undermine collective agreements.
“That is one area that is destroying the trade union movement. It stops the union from focusing on what it is supposed to do.”
Samwu’s solution is to get rid of service providers, Ramotlou said. “That is one area that we are focusing on to ensure that we remain independent … The independence of the union must be safeguarded at all costs.”
“We don’t see any value in municipalities having a middle person to deliver services. We don’t agree with that arrangement, because that means that municipalities are deliberately not planning to build internal capacity, which is what they must do … Once you have service provision being done by private companies, it disempowers [ward] councillors.”
Regarding the country’s municipal elections to be held in 2021, Samwu wants to see municipalities “preparing to build internal capacity”, Ramotlou said.
“Whether parties or councillors change, the function of the municipality must be stable. You don’t need a councillor for water to run. You don’t need a councillor for a clinic to operate. You don’t need a councillor to have ambulances running.”
Ramotlou said it is in the interest of the public to have one, united municipal workers union.
Samwu intends to formally write to the splinter unions in an effort to unite them. “We are doing this for the benefit of municipal workers. There is no reason for us to be fragmented because that weakens the power of workers,” he said.
Ramotlou said he is not concerned about the apparent ideological divide between the Saftu-affiliated unions and Samwu. While Cosatu is aligned to the ANC, Saftu is independent of any political party and is often openly critical of the governing party.
“Ideologically, for comrades who are in Demawusa and Matusa there is not such a big difference in what they want for municipal workers. Because we must first start with what makes you what you are. And that is members,” Ramotlou said.
He added: “If the basis for a member to be in a trade union is about political affiliation, then we won’t have any trade unions.”
The plan to reach out to expelled members seems to come with obstacles. Matusa general secretary Kurt Ziervogel said the unity of municipal workers is “sacrosanct”.
But, he added, “this unity agreement is not worth the paper it is written on. It is like a veneer, to gloss over the bigger issues that Samwu is facing.
“Some of us have advanced to where we don’t want to sit in Cosatu any more,” he said, “Because with Saftu, we have no alliance to a political party and that is appealing to many municipal workers.”
Although Ziervogel acknowledged that discussions between Matusa, Demawusa and Samwu may need to happen, Demawusa’s deputy general secretary Aaron Sekulane was less diplomatic.
“There is no way that we will be considering going back to Samwu. These are just tricks aimed at misleading workers,” he said. “Anything that is affiliated to Cosatu will not bring any change to the issues of the workers.”