2008-09-17 00:00

Municipal workers held Pietermaritzburg to ransom yesterday with an illegal strike that included sabotage, which affected the delivery of essential services and left some suburbs without water and electricity for most of yesterday and last night.

The Msunduzi Municipality secured an interdict from the Pietermaritzburg High Court late yesterday afternoon to stop workers from damaging municipal property. They plan to approach the labour courts today to halt the illegal strike. Criminal charges have been laid with the police.

The electricity blackouts affected the Pietermaritzburg CBD, suburbs such as Cleland, parts of Scottsville, Montrose, Prestbury and Hilton, while water outages affected many parts of the city.

Some areas were still without water and electricity yesterday evening. Electricity was cut at around 8.30 am and restored to some places after lunch time.

Most robots in the CBD weren’t working, resulting in traffic gridlocks without any relief as traffic officers took part in the strike in a show of solidarity.

The striking employees were described as aggressive as they barricaded entrances to the Msunduzi market, preventing buyers and agents from entering and leaving. There were allegations that some buyers were manhandled and told to leave the premises or face having their tyres punctured.

The tyres of municipal vehicles at the electricity department were slashed so they could not be used by technicians who wanted to restore power. Most departments operated with skeleton staff. Parks and recreation staff also downed tools and refuse collection came to a halt. Late in the afternoon, people who claimed they work for the municipality threw rubbish on Church Street near the A.S. Chetty Building and the Pietermaritzburg courts.

Earlier in the day, some employees in the electricity and fire department were locked in by the protesters and those who wanted to work were locked out. Strikers were also reported to have been “banging on doors”. Police were called to intervene at the electricity department in Doull Road where employees and residents were being intimidated by striking staff and the services of private security companies were engaged to protect those who were not striking.

The Witness established that the reasons for the strike have many facets, the main one being the demand for pay increases. Some sources within the municipality believe that the strike is aimed at ousting Mayor Zanele Hlatshwayo; that it is a way to discredit her and to show that she is not in control. Others believe the strike was aimed at getting rid of senior officials. In earlier action, workers indicated they wanted strategic executive manager Phil Mashoko out.

However, more cynical staff members dismissed these theories, saying it was an ordinary strike for basic demands that was so badly handled that it got out of hand. They blame acting municipal manager Zwe Hulane and the mayor for closing all doors to negotiation and then presenting workers with an ultimatum.

This is like a red rag to a bull, said a worker, and a crisis waiting to happen.

No local labour forum meetings have been held to deal with workers’ grievances, staff said. In addition, most of the union leaders were absorbed into management structures within the municipality, leaving the unions leaderless.

Senior management worked under police guard and private security companies to restore electricity yesterday.

Hlatshwayo said the “no work no pay rule” will apply to all employees who took part in the illegal strike. She said disciplinary action will be taken against those found to have intimidated others.

“We extend our sincere apologies to the business community and all other affected parties for the inconvenience caused. A culture of anarchy will not be tolerated and has to stop. In future we will not accommodate grievances that have not been raised through proper structures,” said Hlatshwayo.

The South African Municipal Workers’ Union’s (Samwu) local chairman, Lucky Zimu, said they consulted with Cosatu about the strike and the leadership met with the mayor late last night to resolve the impasse. They were still locked in the meeting at the time of going to print.

Video: Multimedia journalist Ryan Calder captured the strike action in the city yesterday

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