/ 5 March 2024

SAPS, Metro to guard council staff as violent eThekwini strike continues

Ethekwini Strike
Refuse remains uncollected in Durban, as municipal workers continue on a wildcat strike over wages. Photo: Jonathan Erasmus

KwaZulu-Natal premier Nomusa Dube-Ncube has promised a crackdown to stop the violent municipal workers strike from further disrupting council services, which the city hopes to have fully restored by the end of the week.

This comes as rubbish continues to pile up across the city, after municipal services were halted by a wildcat strike over pay by members of the South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu) last Wednesday.

Large parts of north, west and south Durban were left with no water over the weekend after strikers destroyed valves on a number of reservoirs and sabotaged pipelines in a bid to force the city’s hand by disrupting services.

Businesses in the Umgeni Road and Springfield Park areas were forced to close shop, while municipal staff who were not taking part in the strike were prevented from going to work on Friday and Monday.

A number of incidents of violence and vandalism took place on Friday, when council vehicles were used to dump rubbish in the streets and block access to city facilities, and a number of stoning incidents were reported in the Umgeni Road area on Monday morning.

Durban was at the epicentre of the violent July 2021 riots that followed the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma and there are concerns that the strike might lead to widespread violence and looting in the city.

At a media briefing in Durban on Monday, Dube-Ncube and eThekwini mayor Mxolisi Kaunda had promised that the disruption of services would be halted and that those responsible for violence and vandalism would be prosecuted.

Dube-Ncube said the provincial cabinet had met at the weekend and had held discussions with the national security cluster ministers about how to deal with the crisis in the city — and to bring to book those responsible for violent actions.

Dube-Ncube said that while the right to strike was guaranteed, workers did not have the right to destroy infrastructure, deprive residents of services and infringe on the rights of other citizens.

“Government cannot accept nor allow anarchy to prevail,” Dube-Ncube said.  “Lawlessness will not be allowed to prevail.”

Dube-Ncube said that initial arrests of strikers involved in damaging infrastructure and other violent acts had taken place and that video footage was being assessed to bring criminal charges against others.

“Government will no longer tolerate the atmosphere of fear, trespassing on premises and forceful removal of staff from their work posts, denial of patients their rights to gain access into healthcare facilities, including vandalism of critical infrastructure, such as water and electricity,” she said.

The scenes witnessed over the past few days were “pure criminality, economic sabotage and tantamount to treason”.

While the municipality was still assessing the impact and financial implications of the strike, it had met the business community to brief them about what steps it had taken to bring the situation under control.

These included the establishment of a technical task team, involving all levels of government, to co-ordinate interventions and provide additional security and police to protect facilities and non-striking workers.

“Metro Police and private security have been sourced to escort staff to service delivery points including clearing of roads, electricity faults, water leaks, burst pipes and refuse removal. Both the municipal and provincial law enforcement agencies are on high alert and will act,” she said.

Key staff would work remotely, while contractors would be brought in, under escort, to help with refuse collection and to restore electricity and water to areas which had been hit by sabotage.

Police were analysing video evidence and would charge staff who destroyed property or misused council vehicles; while the co-operative governance ministry had put together a team which would help fasttrack internal disciplinary cases.

Legal action would also be taken to recover damages from both individuals who had been involved and from Samwu, who went on the unprotected strike in a demand for pay parity with Ekurhuleni and Johannesburg.

Dube-Ncube said the matter was being discussed between the unions and the government at the local government bargaining council and not in talks with individual councils.

She said eThekwini would push ahead with enforcing the high court interdict it had secured against the strikers last week and that those who continued with violent disruption of services would be charged for doing so.

Workers had been instructed to return to work and would not receive payment or benefits for the period during which they were involved in the illegal strike.

“It is of grave concern that Samwu and striking employees are in breach of the court interdict, and therefore in contempt thereof, as incidents of violence and intimidation directed to staff members and vandalism have continued unabated,” Dube-Ncube said.

In response to questions as to whether the strike might have been “hijacked” by the ANC’s internal political battles, Kaunda said he would leave it up to the security cluster to comment on that.

On Friday, members of Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe party marched in Durban against service delivery failure and were joined by striking Samwu members.

“I would rather leave that to the law enforcement agencies,” Kaunda said. “They are all working in the city. Intelligence, the police and the SANDF [South African National Defence Force] are all combining efforts. They are the ones who will be able to tell us exactly what their sources are gathering at the local level.”

Kaunda said the extent of the damage to infrastructure and the cost had not been established as yet but that he hoped that services would be restored by Friday.

“We cannot tolerate this behaviour from our workers to continue in the city as it is happening. By the end of the week, we want stability in every aspect of our work,” he said.

Samwu said in a statement that it had met to discuss the “impasse” with the city and that it would meet council leadership on Wednesday to discuss their demands.

The union had bailed out a number of its members who had been arrested during the strike.

While Samwu respected the court interdict, “the union continues to explore alternative avenues to address grievances and compel the employer to fulfil its obligations”.