Council sees political hand behind strike
By Freestate On 15 Jul, 2013 At 04:44 PM | Categorized As Local, News | With 2 Comments

A little more than four months after a strike that disrupted services in the Metsimaholo Local Municipality, workers went on strike again on June 25 because of disagreements with council over salaries and other grievances. Apart from municipal workers, residents from the municipality also staged protests earlier this year against a proposed plan to merge the municipality with the neighbouring Ngwathe Local Municipality. In a wide ranging interview this week Free State Times senior reporter Martin Makoni (FST) sought to find out from municipal manager Steve Molala the root causes of the disturbances seen in the municipality in recent months. He asked Molala to explain the measures the council was taking to ensure stability in a municipality that is one of the most important in the Free State and includes the town of Sasolburg, home to energy and chemicals giant Sasol’s manufacturing and processing plant. Excerpts:

FST: Your workers went on strike in February, now a little more than four months they are back on strike again, what’s going on?

SM: In February this year Metsimaholo municipal workers went on a five-day strike over a wide range of issues.
Some of these included the poor employee grading system which was causing a lot of disparities in the salaries, a municipal funeral policy and poor working conditions such as not having protective clothing.
We inherited these issues and problems from the previous administration.
The workers gave notice to strike and they had a letter allowing them to go on a protected strike.
As management, we then met with the workers’ representatives and told them that we were committed to addressing the issues.
Most of the issues raised in the February strike have since been addressed. Since March we have been working on realigning the grades and the salaries.
This means most of the workers actually got increments in the process.
That process should be finalised at the end of this month.
Now, the reason why workers are back on strike again was I told them that they would not be paid for the days that they went on strike in February in line with labour regulations.
There is no way I can pay them because that would be considered wasteful expenditure.
I cannot pay people for days that they did not work.
That is an international norm and it is not even negotiable.

FST: So where do things stand now, is the municipality in talks with its workers to resolve the issues you have just outlined and if so when do you expect to reach an agreement with the strikers?

SM: Yes we have had meetings with them right from the first day and they know very well why the municipality has taken this position.
I actually had no reason to negotiate with them on the matter because you don’t get paid for the time that you were absent from work.
The workers know about it.
But after their presentations I agreed not to dock their salaries in one month.
I was only trying to help.
I went out of my way.
Treasury only allowed me to go ahead with the plan after classifying the arrangement as a loan.
But, still, as a municipality, we are not allowed to give such loans.
The strike turned violent last week and we had to step up security.
Municipal property was destroyed and that includes the paymaster’s office which was torched.
Some of them actually believe the problem is with the paymaster who they think is the one who does not want to pay them their full salaries.
The situation was not very good on Thursday and Friday last week but on Monday this week, some employees, particularly the professional staff started coming back to work.
Those still on the unprotected strike are mostly South African Municipal Workers Union members who make the bulk of our general staff.
But I think it’s time that they returned to work now because I have a court order that allows me to dismiss them if they continue not reporting for duty.

FST: The workers say they are back on strike because municipality reneged on an undertaking made in February to pay them outstanding salaries dating back three years ago. They also say the decision to dock their salaries over the February strike was unilateral by council, that there was no communication before this was done. What do you have to say to this?

SM: The workers know it’s a labour principle. It’s not even negotiated.
They were informed about this.
As management, all we are required to do is give notice about the no work, no pay principle.
I actually went out of my way when I met with them and in the process I even flouted municipal regulations when I adjusted the docking of the money and listed it as a loan in the books.
The workers know about all this.

FST: Does council have enough money to pay the outstanding salaries claimed by workers?

SM: The municipality’s finances are in very good order.
We are in a very healthy financial position.
I am sure you know that many municipalities across the country owe utilities such as Eskom and other service providers, large amounts of money.
We don’t owe anyone.
Our problem rather, is that some residents are not paying their rates and taxes.
Even some people who can actually afford to pay their rates and taxes just decide not to do so.
In the townships we only collect 30-40 percent of the anticipated revenues per month.
In the central business district, our collection rate is about 98 percent, which is very good.

FST: Indeed your municipality seems on the right track financially, you showed commendable progress when you got a qualified audit opinion for the 2011/12 financial year, an improvement from a disclaimer issued the previous year. But would you agree that the strikes we are seeing are evidence that you are not getting it right on the labour front?

SM: Most of the workers concerns have been addressed.
The salary structure, which was one of the most important issues raised, has largely been addressed.
Most of the workers have had salary and wage increases and their working conditions are much better now.
The payment of some funeral policies which had been messed up by a certain private company is currently being addressed. Lately, even some workers don’t even understand why they should be on strike.
Some have even told us that they are tired of being called to go on strike.

FST: But it is not only workers that have been striking, residents have also staged protests citing corruption by senior municipal officials among other grievances?

SM: In January the residents protested against the proposed amalgamation of Metsimaholo and Ngwathe Local Municipalities.
The residents attacked the municipality but of course that was misdirected anger because the idea of the amalgamation came from the Municipal Demarcation Board and not the municipality.  Furthermore, it was simply a proposal. Nothing had been finalised.
But people misconstrued the whole proposal to be the idea of Metsimaholo mayor (Brutus Mahlaku) who comes from Parys which is in Ngwathe.
Some people just thought that he wanted to perpetuate his hegemony and they decided to protest.
As for the workers, their issues are being addressed. We have dealt with the salary disparities and improved working conditions.

FST: When residents took to the streets in protests in April they specifically accused mayor Mahlaku and municipal speaker Sello Matena of corruption and wasteful expenditure, what do you have to say about these allegations?

SM: We said people should come forward with the evidence to back their accusations.
Those people (protesting residents) came here making those accusations, they then proceeded to the police and laid corruption charges against the mayor and the speaker.
We then said we will let the law take its course.
The hawks are now investigating. They visited council offices in May and we haven’t heard anything from them.
But as a municipality we have nothing against the mayor and speaker.
We are striving for a clean audit in 2014 and we would not allow such issues to fail us.

FST: In his state of the municipality address the mayor said protests by residents were intended to tarnish his image and that of council, but what would be the reason to think residents would turn against their mayor and council in this way?

SM: There are personality issues involved. Some people just feel they should be holding certain positions instead of those qualified or elected to do so.
You cannot rule out politics in the whole matter. We have had some people in the so called “regime change” grouping trying to cause disturbances in the running of the municipality.
Other disgruntled people have also tried to upset the situation here, but I am not the most qualified person to delve into that (the politics behind protests).

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    {internet|web} explorer, {may|might|could|would} {check|test} this?
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