‘Jo’burg uses our fees for slush fund’

The union demanded the city transfer the money back to Samwu when its members protested outside the Johannesburg metro centre council chambers in a show of their frustration with the city. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

The union demanded the city transfer the money back to Samwu when its members protested outside the Johannesburg metro centre council chambers in a show of their frustration with the city. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

The City of Johannesburg is investigating allegations that money was stolen from an account holding R29-million of union members’ subscription fees.

City manager Ndivhoniswani Lukhwareni said in a letter sent to South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) general secretary Koena Ramotlou last week that the city’s forensic services department will carry out the probe.

A memorandum handed to the city last Thursday alleges that a city of Johannesburg suspense account became a slush fund to pay for the “flashy lifestyles” of Samwu officials allegedly “captured” by the city.

The union demanded the city transfer the money back to Samwu when its members protested outside the Johannesburg metro centre council chambers in a show of their frustration with the city.

The decision to keep the subscription fees in the suspense account was taken by Samwu officials in 2015, in the wake of an internal battle over the millions of rands that went missing from union coffers between 2012 and 2015.

City of Johannesburg chief operating officer Floyd Brink acknowledged the list of demands, promising to get back to Samwu promptly.

But Lukhwareni’s response is uncompromising — he accuses Ramotlou of breaking a unity agreement brokered by union federation Cosatu by failing to include other members of the “recognised unified structure” established to run Samwu pending new elections.

The structure consists of members of both Samwu factions.

In another letter sent to Samwu organisers last Wednesday, Lukhwareni raised their failure to inform union members of a labour court order from August, which dissolved pre-existing leadership structures and established the unified structure.

The letter forms part of a directive that organisers cease and desist misleading Samwu members by failing to tell them that the unified structure did not sign off on the transfer of the subscription fees to Samwu.

At least four of the five organisers named in the cease and desist letter have now been placed on precautionary suspension, according to letters seen by the Mail & Guardian.

These suspensions follows that of Samwu’s Gauteng provincial secretary, Bafana Zungu, who publicly questioned the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the City of Johannesburg and “individuals alleging to be representing the union”.

The MoU, signed in August this year by representatives from Samwu and the Independent Municipal and Allied Trade Union, is designed to resolve labour disputes and stave off strike action.

After the signing, Zungu released a statement distancing Samwu from the MoU.

A letter addressed to Lukhwareni and signed by outgoing Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba, characterises Zungu’s conduct as “a self-evident case of bringing the name of the city into disrepute”.

“I do not believe that the city can look past such forms of conduct from one of its employees in terms of either the disciplinary code or the MoU,” Mashaba’s letter reads.

Lukhwareni’s letter responding to Samwu’s list of demands handed over during last week’s protest, addresses the suspension of workers through action taken by Mashaba, who resigned on Monday over the Democratic Alliance’s own internal problems.

“Indeed, it remains the city’s position to show zero tolerance on issues pertaining to fraud, corruption and administration, and the executive mayor continues to provide the needed leadership in this regard, something that the city was deprived of for so many years,” Lukhwareni’s letter reads.

He also denies allegations that the city interfered in Samwu’s affairs: “The city denies to have captured any leader of the union, except the city is compelled by the business of labour relations to keep cordial relations between itself and its employee representatives.”

Speaking to the M&G last week, Ramotlou conceded that factionalism is still a problem in Samwu. “Obviously, when people have been used to doing things wrongly and, as there is a movement for the union to unite now, there are those who will want to pull back. But we are not going to allow them to take us back.”

He said the Samwu members who signed the MoU had recently been brought back into the fold in an effort to promote unity in the union.

“But little did we know that they had been working with the mayor for some time,” Ramotlou said.

He added that the union had hoped to mend its internal divisions before going to the city with its demands.

A letter written by the lawyers for Vuyani Singonzo — one of the Samwu officials who signed the MoU and a leader of the grouping going up against the Ramotlou faction — to Lukhwareni earlier this month demands that the city reject a request by Ramotlou to transfer the subscriptions.

According to the letter, Ramotlou has failed to honour the unity agreement by locking the Singonzo faction out of Samwu’s Johannesburg headquarters, leaving them out of the elections task team and by having them suspended.

Until the unity agreement has been adhered to, Samwu members “employed by the city … do not wish for the monies to be transferred”, the lawyers’ letter reads.

Singonzo disputed allegations he and others are in cahoots with the city, telling the M&G that he has not been paid money out of the suspense account.

He further accused the Ramotlou faction of failing to represent the interests of City of Johannesburg workers. “We are in the election season and they want to mix politics with the issues of the workers,” he said. “The City of Johannesburg is our employer and, as the employers, we are going to co-operate with them on worker issues.”

Ramotlou denied using Samwu’s battle with the city to undermine the DA-led coalition in the run-up to the 2021 local government elections.

He added that if the city fails to address the problem of the missing subscription fees, Samwu will report the metro to the labour registrar.

Sarah Smit

Sarah Smit

Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law. Read more from Sarah Smit

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