SAMWU strikers caused chaos
The trade union SAMWU caused absolute anarchy at the municipal offices in Tzaneen while the SAPS took pictures and videos instead of dispersing the crowds.

Members of the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) embarked on a protest action at the entrance to the Greater Tzaneen Municipality’s (GTM) offices in Tzaneen on Tuesday morning, the 10th of November. The reason behind the protest was the encashment of employees’ annual leave days, which they claim the municipality did not want to pay out to them because of corruption in the top management structures.

The focus of their apparent anger was once again the GTM’s Municipal Manager, Thapelo Matlala, and the GTM’s Mayor, Maripe Mangena, who had not approved the pay outs. The refusal to give in to the employees’ demands was in accordance with the Main Collective Agreement which is an agreement entered into by SAMWU leadership and GTM officials in 2015 at the SALGA Bargaining Council. This agreement, which was initially valid until 2020, but was later extended to 2022, clearly states the prerequisites for accumulated leave to be “cashed out”.  The agreement is endorsed by the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) who applauded Matlala for standing his ground in the matter.

Municipal employees are entitled to 24 annual leave days. Leave days may accumulate up to a total of 48 days if the leave days are not used by the employee in cases where work commitments deemed it impossible (for instance in the case of an emergency shutdown). Only if it is proven that the employee could not take leave, the employee may apply to have the accumulated leave days “encashed”, meaning that the monetary value of the leave days is paid out to the employee.

SAMWU Strikers caused chaos
SAMWU members started fires in the parking lot of the municipal buildings and burnt wooden pallets and vehicle tyres. Photo: Joe Dreyer

Because in the past there has never been any real control over this process, the encashment of leave days cost the municipality in the region of R10 million annually. There have been reports of workers booking sick leave instead of annual leave during the year, in order to benefit from cashing in their accumulated leave days just before the festive season. With the arrival of Matlala two years ago, a number of the systems at the GTM were relooked. This included the cutting of the overtime budget from over R3 million a month to just more than a million, and the implementation of strict control over leave days encashment. Both Matlala and Mangena believe that the money should be used to maintain the municipality’s infrastructure which is at an advanced stage of aging.

SAMWU however believe that the municipality is corrupt, and that Mayor Mangena wishes to use the employees’ leave encashment funds to finance his mayoral campaign in the runup to the next by-election in 2021. This is the same union who in the past have accused Matlala of being ‘too bossy’ and who have campaigned for his removal from the Municipal Manager’s seat since he took office in April 2018.

SAMWU Strikers caused chaos
A bakkie was delivering old vehicle tyres from Nkowankowa to the GTM building in Tzaneen for the striking SAMWU members to burn. Photo: Joe Dreyer

There have been clear, concerted efforts ever since to render the municipality ungovernable by members of a faction within the GTM, who view both Matlala and Mangena as threats to their decades-long hold over the municipality’s coffers. Both men have received death threats and since mid-2019, gatherings have continuously been disrupted. In September last year, a group of protestors stormed the building and forced their way into the council chambers while a council sitting was in progress. The group was armed with a canister of petrol and threatened to assassinate Matlala. This caused the municipal manager to exercise his executive powers and employ private security from Midrand as an emergency measure to ensure the safety of the personnel and members of the public at the municipal buildings. When SAMWU caught wind of this appointment, they again accused Matlala of misusing municipal monies for personal gain and once again attempted to oust him.

On Tuesday this week, SAMWU returned once more with their members embarking on a legal protest. Matlala had agreed to meet with the group at the municipal swimming pool complex in Crown Street, to prevent any business interruptions at the main building where the public would be renewing licenses and paying accounts.

The SAMWU members ignored their manager’s call and instead took up position in the main parking lot at the entrance to the main building. They took down the temporary tent that was erected to provide shade to the residents waiting to pay their bills, and emptied bags of garbage across the lot. Soon, a bakkie arrived with vehicle tyres, logs and wooden pallets which the group used to build a bonfire on the steps to the municipal building. Thick black smoke blotted out the sun and drifted into the windows of the offices on the second storey.

SAMWU Strikers caused chaos
Even the municipal Traffic Department employees were dancing around the fires during the strike. Photo: Joe Dreyer

Joining in song, the municipal workers, including the traffic department’s officers, danced around the bonfire with much glee, taunting the municipal security officers who were standing guard on the steps at the building’s entrance, as they did so. The police were present in the form of two vehicles and seven officers parked at the entrance to the parking lot – they had been present since before the group started protesting. No arrests were made for arson or malicious damage to property.

At one point, SAMWU Chairperson, Moses Malatji, addressed the workers and called for them to “fight to the end, because it is money or nothing”. According to him the ANC leadership at the GTM had enriched themselves through tender fraud and had appointed a person with a criminal record as the chief financial officer. He said that the union had obtained a certificate to strike, and they would escalate their efforts until they are heard.

SAMWU Strikers caused chaos
The instigators among the mob were fueling the aggression which soon escalated to a point where the strikers were intimidating the municipal employees inside the building and even resulted in an altercation with the security personnel who tried to extinguish the flames. Photo: Joe Dreyer

“The municipality had put a person who had looted money from the VBS in the office. Now that person is telling us that we are not going to get money for our leave days. We will now go and open a case against the mayor, after which we will tell the provincial secretary, Soviet Lekganyane, to implement conference resolutions in which comrades who have been criminally charged, are relieved of their duties. Therefore, the mayor will sit at home and deal with his issues.”

He was referring to the case of corruption SAMWU had opened with the police in Tzaneen against the municipal bosses whom they accused of embezzling the money which was meant for the workers encashment of leave days. Malatji concluded by warning the ANC that they would not support them in the coming elections if they’re demands are not met. “It will be better to rather have an EFF or DA run municipality than to have these ANC cadres who don’t care about us.”

SAMWU Strikers caused chaos
Municipal workers aligned to SAMWU were singing and dancing around the fires they started in the parking lot of the GTM in Tzaneen. Photo: Joe Dreyer

Bulletin received information from a source within the union later that afternoon, that members were planning to sabotage key structures of the GTM the following day (Wednesday), should their demands not be met. Local security companies and the police were alerted and by Tuesday evening, an order was granted in the Polokwane High Court which prohibited any further protest action on the municipal premises. The order was handed down to the police in Tzaneen by the sheriff of the court.

On Wednesday morning, the sheriff of the court, Tertius Robertson, read the court order out to the SAMWU gathering over a loudspeaker as instructed by the court. The order prohibited the illegal activities of the protestors and forbade them from entering the municipal grounds.

SAMWU Strikers caused chaos
Victor Manyama, Regional Chairperson of the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) was at the forefront of the disruptions. Photo: Joe Dreyer

Despite this court order however, the SAMWU members were again burning rubble and tyres in the parking lot of the GTM main building, in the presence of the police. Bulletin was at the scene and filmed a fire truck arriving to extinguish the flames. Shortly after this, the crowd directed their attention to our editor. The Regional Chairperson of SAMWU, Victor Manyama approached him and said “we don’t want you here, you must leave, you tell lies about us!” He was not willing to set the record straight on camera and behaved in a threatening manner as he attempted to knock the camera out of the journalist’s hands. He further tried to grab hold of the journalist’s arm which caused the crowd to start rushing towards where he was standing. The police did nothing to prevent the altercation which resulted in Bulletin leaving the scene. The police stopped Manyama and a couple of other protestors from following the journalist to his vehicle. At the time of going to print it was not clear whether any arrests had been made.  

There will be a follow up on this developing story in the 20th of November’s Bulletin. In the meantime our editor has received threats from certain SAMWU members who claim that the live videos were spreading lies about their movement.