Municipal bus drivers brought Pretoria to a standstill early this week. Buses emblazoned with the Tshwane Bus Services logo obstructed key intersections in the city centre, as workers sought to bring attention to their demand for an 18% wage increase. Hundreds of commuters were left stranded.
At the forefront of the action was the embattled South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu), which has for years been plagued by infighting over allegations of wide-scale financial mismanagement.
The union has been threatened with being put under administration by the labour registrar. Its new national leadership has been tasked with putting the seemingly broken union back together.
But despite the trials the union has faced at its head office, at a regional level Samwu has not shied away from leveraging its most valuable tool — the power its members wield over services in municipalities.
According to Samwu’s Tshwane regional secretary, Mpho Tladinyane, the shutdown was sparked by a dispute with the city, which had decided to pay an 18% salary increase only to its permanently employed group and divisional heads, leaving out lower level workers.
On Monday, the city obtained a labour court order to interdict the strike. In a statement, it accused the workers of “thuggery and disorderliness”.
Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula also condemned the shutdown. In a statement, he said: “Lawlessness must not prevail. Workers have a right to strike but they must do so within the confines of traffic laws.”
Tladinyane responded to this criticism, telling the Mail & Guardian that, “No normal person would keep quiet.”
“We can’t keep quiet. You would also demand that you be paid. Because the actual people who are doing the work are the ones who have been left out,” he said.
“It can’t be justifiable to pay only senior managers that amount of money and leave others out. So workers can’t have no right to fight so that they also be paid.”
Samwu general secretary Koena Ramotlou told the M&G that the union sympathises with commuters affected by the shutdown. But he added that workers’ actions were “provoked by the employer”. He said union leadership has demanded a meeting with acting mayor Abel Tau to try to solve the impasse, because: “We cannot allow things to go on like this.”
It can be difficult for certain municipal workers to go on strike. A number of services carried out by these workers are designated as essential under the Labour Relations Act. Section 70 of the act puts a limit on essential service workers’ right to strike.
The Pretoria shutdown comes amid Samwu’s growing frustration with the municipalities its members work for. The union has accused 30 municipalities of failing to pay workers their salaries in full and on time.
Financial mismanagement in municipalities was put in sharp relief at the June release of the 2017-2018 municipal audit results. According to the audit report, irregular expenditure in municipalities amounted to R21.2-billion.
The shutdown is not the first time Samwu has managed to paralyse a city.
It has embarked on protracted strikes in recent months over salary disputes and alleged corruption in various municipalities in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.
Samwu and other municipal workers are well positioned to take on failing municipalities and — if recent events are anything to go by — they will.