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For two months, the City of Tshwane has been at the centre of a fierce battle against illegal strikes led by the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (SAMWU) demanding a 5.4% pay rise. Despite severe financial distress, the DA-led coalition, under Mayor Cilliers Brink, has refused to yield, offering insights into how non-ANC and non-EFF coalitions might handle national power. With a precarious two-seat majority, Tshwane’s stand reveals the importance of resilience in the face of adversity. Jonathan Katzenellenbogen explores the implications and the broader context of this remarkable showdown and its potential impact on South Africa’s future governance.
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Lessons from the Tshwane strike
By Jonathan Katzenellenbogen*
For the past two months, the City of Tshwane has faced illegal strike action by the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (SAMWU) in support of a demand for a pay rise of 5.4 percent. This is although the City is in no position to pay this amount, as it is in severe financial distress and the strike has been declared unlawful.
When the strike ends, the experience of Tshwane may mean that other municipalities faced with wage demands in the face of financial distress will also hold firm. But the strike and its handling have wider importance as pointers to how matters might evolve should a non-ANC and non-EFF, coalition come to power at national level. If such a coalition does rule the country, it is likely to have a narrow majority, and may have to confront a hostile civil service.
The current coalition in Tshwane only has a two-seat majority, and a DA led coalition was ousted earlier this year, so it is on precarious ground.
Many other municipalities that are in a similar financial position to Tshwane have given in to union demands and severely cut back on services, maintenance, and capital spending to meet the rise in payroll. In Tshwane, the pay rise was previously agreed to as part of a multi-year deal, but an exemption clause should allow the city to back out of the agreement.
The DA Mayor, Cilliers Brink, who heads the ruling coalition on the Council, has stood his ground and refused to give in, despite what he says is a campaign of violence that has included attempted murder and widespread intimidation.
The strike itself has lacked support, with only about 30 percent of workers staying away at the peak, and now all but a few workers have returned to their jobs, The main impact of the strike has been to leave the city in a mess, with inadequate garbage collection and inconvenience for those who rely on public transport.
One lesson is that in the face of such strikes, alternative plans and backbone are key.
It is not entirely clear that such a coalition at national level will necessarily have the forces of law and order on its side. Brink had the support of the City’s Metro Police, but has pleaded for more support from the SA Police Service. In Tshwane the national police have been helpful, but the organisers of violence and intimidation around the strike have not been arrested. Last week four municipal vehicles and two garbage trucks were set on fire, which Brink says is part of a campaign of intimidation by organised crime.
The City has had to make arrangements to deal with the security threat. Private security companies have donated their services and have escorted garbage trucks belonging to contractors hired by the city.
The absence of full-scale support from the national government is similar in some respects to what happened during the recent Cape Town taxi strike. While the national police in the Western Cape were helpful in dealing with the taxi strike, the Cape Town Mayor, Geordin Hill-Lewis did not have the full political backing of Minister of Police, Bheki Cele.
In addition, there was pressure from the ANC on the Mayor of Cape Town to do a deal with the taxi drivers, and in Tshwane for the Mayor to settle with the union. But that has not happened.
Perhaps SAMWU, an ANC-aligned union, was keen to test the limits with the DA-led council. It has been and might still be a hard fight for the Mayor and the coalition. While the South African Local Government Bargaining Council says the pay agreement should be enforced, the City has appealed to the Labour Court to review this decision.
Had the pay award gone ahead, it would have cost the City about R600m, and raised the existing R3 billion deficit, pushing the municipality further into financial distress. The City’s decline has long been underway after years of ANC rule from 1994 to 2016, but has accelerated in recent years under a series of DA mayors.
An ANC-led municipality bungled a prepaid electricity meter initiative, which left the City with a R3 billion VAT assessment plus penalties and interest. This was followed by a precipitous decline in revenue from municipal rates, due to the difficulty in collecting these from government departments, the impact of the Covid lockdown, and the shift to solar power by residents after load shedding. And adding to the squeeze, a series of administrations have splurged on new employees and wage awards,
For much of the time the DA found itself unable to make senior appointments without support from the EFF, which meant a loss of control over City management. Under DA Mayor Stevens Mokgalapa, the City’s finances worsened to the point where the Gauteng Provincial Government took over management of the City. Rule by the province was later overturned in Court, but the DA Mayor was later forced to resign because of a shocking audit report. After a brief period under a Congress of the People Mayor earlier this year, Cilliers Brink was able to put together a coalition.
The succession of DA Mayors was the result of the party lacking sufficient power in the Council to fire senior cadres and being unable to hire competent technocrats. Being in power yet not in control is a path to disaster, as the DA should have learned.
In Tshwane the DA now rules with a coalition made up of some of the other parties that are part of the Multi-Party Charter including Action SA, the Freedom Front, the Inkatha Freedom Party, and the African Christian Democratic Party, which is not part of the Charter. Despite the absence of some Multi-Party Charter members, Tshwane is a test bed for a coalition with a minute majority that wants to rule the country.
Brink is pushing through plans to revive and lease out the City’s Rooiwal and Pretoria West Power Stations. That would bring in additional revenue, reduce dependence on Eskom and mean fewer power cuts. With such a slim majority the Tshwane coalition is bound to face near-death moments. A win for the City against SAMWU should enhance the coalition’s authority. But the strike could be just one of a series of battles that Brink faces.
That might well be the same position in which a coalition of Multi-Party Charter members might someday find themselves, should they be able to form a government.
The bigger lesson that can be drawn from the past eight weeks in Tshwane is pretty simple. Standing up and drawing a line is likely to work on core matters when the issues are clear. It worked in Cape Town, and it is likely to work in Tshwane. Residents want to see their cities succeed and to have law and order on the streets.
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*Jonathan Katzenellenbogen is a Johannesburg-based freelance financial journalist.
This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission
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