SAMWU workers cleaning mess
Striking SAMWU workers were elated at the news that they would be allowed to encash some of their leave days. Their leaders and shop stewards however, now face criminal charges. Photo: Joe Dreyer

Jubilation by hundreds workers of the Greater Tzaneen Municipality (GTM) in town after their demands for the encashment of leave days was met, was short-lived as leaders of the left aligned South African Municipal Workers (SAMWU) were arrested on Wednesday, a day after the eight days strike came to an end. They were arrested and released on police bail after the intervention of their legal team on the day.

Contrary to initial claims that only two leaders of the union, Moses Malatji, the chairperson, and Peter Modika, the secretary were nabbed, reports said that all shop stewards were arrested for various charges as well. The charges that included sabotage and damage to property followed the sabotage of electrical and water reticulation infrastructure during the course of the strike. Parts of Tzaneen were left water less for two days.

SAMWU Strikers caused chaos
Even the municipal traffic department members joined in the burning of tyres in front of the offices of their employer. Photo: Joe Dreyer

The strike, prompted by the refusal of the management to allow employees to encash their leave days, vehicle and housing allowances, only came to an end after the municipality conceded to the demands of the workers on condition that it will be paid in fractions. Workers were allowed to encash their leave days, but they will receive the money on a first come first served basis.

Three days after the workers returned to their workplaces, a message was sent to all the staff advising them to encash their leave days, but payment would commence with those who applied timeously. “If you want to encash your leave, you can now submit your application. Please note that we will prioritize those who had already submitted their applications from July. Please use the old form to apply. From Corporate services.”

From as early as 2000 when the new municipalities were introduced, GTM workers could redeem their leave days but were only allowed to encash eight days. When an employee completed ten years of service, that employee was permitted to sell more than ten days leave up to a total of 18 days. In 2011 during a SALGA bargaining council meeting between all unions namely SAMWU and Independent Municipal and Allied Unions (IMATU) the days increased to ten days.

Among some of the concessions between the three parties (as published in this newspaper in 2018) was that the days for sick leave had increased from 90 days annually to 120. It was also agreed that if an employee were sick, he could be paid for 360 days instead of 180. Another concession was that those working overtime should receive transport and cellphones.

Shockingly, the protestors who were starting fires and vandalizing municipal property in Tzaneen, appeared to display a total disregard for the law enforcement officers on the scene. Photo: Joe Dreyer

According to an employee who could not be named, when the new municipal manager, Thapelo Matlala arrived at the municipality in 2018, the encashment of leave days was shelved and overtime pay was reduced. It is this approach that landed Matlala in the hot seat with unions who accused him of being (among others) “too bossy”.

The strike action last week, by SAMWU workers which literally brought services at the Tzaneen municipality to a standstill, was not the first attempt by this union to unseat Matlala. The way the strike action played out, right from the start, led to whispers in the corridors that the strike itself was orchestrated by a faction within the municipality seeking to remove both Matlala and the mayor, Mangena.

SAMWU members were on strike against the encashment of their leave days, but later marched to the Tzaneen police station where they opened a case of fraud and corruption against Matlala citing the Codesa Road project case and the widely reported appointment of extra security at the GTM buildings after a group of protestors stormed into the council chambers and attempted to attack the municipal manager. Both cases had already been heard in court. Shortly after SAMWU’s case was opened at the police station, the GTM’s acting head of security, Kenny Makhubela opened a case of Public Violence and Contravention of a Court Order against the union’s leadership which resulted in the arrests being effected. The suspects were released on the same day however and are to appear in court soon. At the time of going to print we had not received a court date.

SAMWU strikers caused chaos
Trade union SAMWU caused anarchy at the municipal offices in Tzaneen while the SAPS took pictures and videos instead of dispersing the crowds. Photo: Joe Dreyer.

This week the SAMWU leadership travelled to Polokwane to appeal against the interim high court order obtained by the municipal manager to prevent the strike from continuing. The Polokwane High Court upheld the interdict against SAMWU making it valid until the return date.

Bulletin has still not managed to gain any clarity on why the police had stalled in their response to the violent protests, or the sabotaging of the town’s water supply. We have asked both the provincial spokesperson, Col Moatshe Ngoepe, and the Tzaneen Cluster Commander Brig-Genl Maggie Mathebula for comment on the police in Tzaneen’s hesitation to execute their mandate despite a high court order obligating them to prevent further strike action and acts of violence. Our inquiries to Ngoepe were met with the response “police investigations will tell” or “I will check”. Brig-Genl Mathebula has not responded to our last message.

It is the view of a number of observers including the DA’s MP Desiree van der Walt, and the municipal manager, Thapelo Matlala that the strike action and subsequent events could have been avoided had the police enforced the law and prevented the strike from escalating to the levels it did. Through the lawless actions of the SAMWU members, and the hesitation of the police to stop them, the municipal manager was forced to bend to their demands in order to prevent further damage to infrastructure and further disruptions to essential service delivery. The cost of the encashment amounts to an extra R2.62 million for the month of July only.