Pensioners head for high court

Pensioners who have protested outside Parliament since April have left their base at Cape Town’s Central Methodist Church and are taking their grievances to court  PHOTO: Lulama Zenzile
Pensioners who have protested outside Parliament since April have left their base at Cape Town’s Central Methodist Church and are taking their grievances to court PHOTO: Lulama Zenzile

“I have nothing to show for the eight weeks we spent here. I am so disappointed in our government, that they could not help us,” says Nombuso Mvumvu, as she and other women pack their bags at Cape Town’s Central Methodist Church.

Mvumvu (53) is with a group of 140 Ciskei pensioners who descended on Parliament in mid-April and have been silently protesting outside the legislature for seven weeks.

They slept in church pews for most of their stay, but this week they gave in and packed their bags.

Mvumvu is not a pensioner. She was in Cape Town to represent her sickly mother, who is claiming pension and Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) benefits on behalf of her husband, who died in January 2012.

Mvumvu took leave from her job as a machine operator at the Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality to fight for her father, who “never received any payout – not a cent anywhere”.

“I cannot believe that we are leaving empty-handed. We came here to our government, a government we elected. But they have been playing hide-and-seek with us,” she said.

“We thought sitting here every day would do something to their conscience … but there is no conscience.”

The Eastern Cape pensioners were a fixture outside Parliament, quietly sitting on the benches outside or lying on the pavement in hope.

On May 6, they upped the ante, blocking all the entrances and exits to the legislature by sitting in front of the gates at the height of the budget vote process, one of Parliament’s busiest periods.

Their issue dates back to the 1980s and the facts depend on who one talks to.

The elderly men there are former employees of the apartheid-era bus company Ciskei Transport Corporation and SA Transport Services, which became part of Transnet.

They claim that when the bus company folded, and when the railway workers were fired – after a protracted strike by the then SA Railway and Harbour Workers’ Union, which began in 1988 and ended in 1990 – their benefits were not paid out.

They want Parliament and government departments to help them get their money.

The women present are mostly wives and daughters of the drivers, mechanics and labourers of these companies.

The group gave in on Friday and left Cape Town on the advice of their new lawyer. They will now take their matter to the Eastern Cape High Court in Grahamstown.

The labour department was assisting, said spokesperson Sithembele Tshwete.

“As a department, our mandate is to deal with issues relating to the UIF. They need to give us proof that they were employed by the bus and railway company. There is a flat fee for those who can provide proof of employment,” he told City Press this week.

Tshwete said that, since the group arrived outside Parliament in April, 91 of those who worked for the bus company were paid a R3 000 flat fee by the UIF. Those who had not been paid did not provide proof – in the form of salary slips, letters of termination or other letters – that they worked for the companies.

Tshwete said there were 635 people from the Ciskei Transport Corporation group, including labourers, drivers and mechanics. Of those, 91 were paid their UIF benefits while they were protesting outside Parliament. Of the total, 468 could not produce any proof they were employed there.

There were also 333 UIF files opened from those who worked for the railway company. But of those, 191 did not provide the required proof, 40 submitted insufficient proof, 50 had already been paid and one died during this period.

This week, Parliament told City Press that its role was to facilitate engagements between the pensioners and the relevant departments, with a specific focus on verification of lists and claims. “In instances where the pensioners made allegations of corruption against certain persons, they have been advised to approach the appropriate institutions.”

Parliament said one of the meetings it facilitated resulted in a decision to help the pensioners through UIF. The agreement – reached between Parliament, the departments of labour and public enterprises, and the pensioners’ representatives – stipulated that the labour department process all applications for UIF by May 5, and implement the outcome within two weeks.

But the pensioners blocked Parliament’s gates on May 6, because their representative misunderstood and told them they would be paid out on May 5.

Michael Matshaya, the man at the centre of this saga, disputes everything that the government has said. The pensioners describe him as their leader and sometimes as their lawyer.

Matshaya told City Press he was a “private investigator”.

“I also work as a consultant and I am good in tracing and investigations,” he claimed.

He accused Parliament, the Eastern Cape government and national government departments of not caring about the pensioners’ plight – because, he alleged, the companies involved, especially Transnet, were being run by ANC members who “may have misappropriated the pensioners’ funds”.

“They are all covering up for each other,” he claimed.

He did not back up his claims with facts or data, except to say the government had been indifferent despite three years of meetings, petitions and protests. “The office of the president and Treasury must resolve this issue; they must pay them.”

Matshaya added that all the people he “represents” – 996 from the railway company – still appeared on the labour department’s system as employed. “So, where do their wages go if they are still employed? All these people have claimed their UIF from the labour department. Why are they not getting their UIF money if the department says they are unemployed?”

In a letter to Matshaya in September 2012, Khotso Ntseare – Transnet Freight Rail’s then executive manager responsible for employee relations – wrote: “It is our considered opinion that there is no money due and payable by Transnet Freight Rail.”

Ntseare said in his letter that it was confirmed that payments were made – but the pensioners believed the amounts were not large enough.

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