Durban strike: Why it happened and what the fallout has been

Mayor says it will take two weeks to clear waste backlog

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Striking municipal workers wait outside City Hall in eThekwini. Photos: Tsoanelo Sefoloko

  • Municipal employees with the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) have been on strike since 27 February in eThekwini.
  • Municipal services have ground to a halt in many areas, leaving residents without water, electricity, sewage maintenance and refuse collection.
  • As a result, protests by fed-up residents have erupted all over the city this week.
  • SAMWU has instructed workers to go back to work, but many workers have not returned.
  • Mayor Mxolisi Kaunda says 18,000 volunteers will be deployed across the city to clean up the worst affected areas.

On 27 February, hundreds of eThekwini workers affiliated with the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) downed tools and marched through Durban’s city centre in an unprotected strike to demand better wages.

The strike has gone on for over two weeks leaving residents in some areas without services, including water, electricity, refuse removal and sewer repairs and maintenance.

Mayor Mxolisi Kaunda stated in a post-council media briefing on Wednesday that workers had begun to return to work and services would start to resume.

Why workers went on strike

Workers went on strike for higher wages, complaining that their pay was lower than their counterparts in other metros such as Ekurhuleni and Tshwane. A general worker in eThekwini earns about R10,000 a month, while general workers in Tshwane and Ekurhuleni earn about R13,900, according to Xolani Dube, SAMWU regional secretary in eThekwini.

Workers handed over a memorandum to Khayo Mpungose, from Mayor Mxolisi Kaunda’s office, on the first day of the February march.

The day after, we reported the resumption of most municipal services. But this was short-lived as the workers soon resumed the strike, bringing the metro’s municipal services to a standstill.

Dube said the union leadership met on Monday with Kaunda, and they came to an agreement that workers will go back to work while talks are ongoing.

Kaunda told the media it is going to take two weeks for services to be properly restored.

Many workers have still not gone back to work, with some fearing that they will face violence from other workers still out on strike, according to Councillor Muzi Thusi (ANC) of ward 38.

Talks between the SAMWU leadership and municipal officials are ongoing, according to a worker in the SAMWU offices.

On Friday, hundreds of workers affiliated to SAMWU were waiting outside the municipal offices to hear if they will receive a pay increase.

The municipality has called the strike “illegal”. It has applied the “no work, no pay and no benefits” principle, according to municipality spokesperson Gugu Sisilana.

GroundUp was unable to verify with SAMWU as to whether it had followed the procedures of the Labour Relations Act in initiating the strike.

So far 81 municipal workers have been put on precautionary suspension, and 88 have been dismissed for participating in the “unlawful industrial action”, the mayor said on Wednesday. A further 1,891 employees have also been given notices of misconduct.

This week Kaunda asked residents not to alert striking workers about teams working in various areas to restore services. “This has led to the attack of some employees. Many communities have been without water and electricity for several days resulting in patients unable to access health care,” he said.

Last week in Phoenix two municipal workers were shot at and injured while on site trying to restore electricity to the area. A municipal water truck driver in Phoenix was attacked and had to be hospitalised.

Protests across the municipality

Residents have sat without services for weeks in Hillcrest, Embo, Mariannridge, Mpola, Ntuzuma, Inanda, Redcliffe, Buffelsdraai, Waterloo, Parkgate, Umlazi, KwaMakhutha, Adams Mission, eNgonyameni, Phoenix, Verulam, oThongathi, Trenance Park and KwaXimba.

This week residents of Thokoza Hostel, a women’s hostel in Durban, protested because they had been without electricity for nearly two weeks. Five protesters were arrested. Electricity was restored the same day late in the afternoon.

Protests erupted in Phoenix on Thursday with residents blocking Phoenix Highway and Fernham Drive with sand and burning tyres. They had been without water and electricity for over 12 days, and the municipality was not communicating with them, the protesters claimed. The demonstrators were dispersed by police.

Nqobile Gwala, KwaZulu-Natal police spokesperson, said: “Two suspects aged 27 and 29 were arrested for public violence and damage to infrastructure. Another 42-year-old man was found in unlawful possession of a firearm and 15 rounds of ammunition. The suspects will appear in court soon.”

Residents said the police should rather be escorting workers not on strike so that they can do their jobs in safety.

“The lack of services and prevailing filth in the city have left the residents feeling abandoned by the authorities,” said MPL Bradley Singh (DA).

Provincial education spokesperson Muzi Mahlambi said learners had to be released from classes because there was no water at the schools. The province is also experiencing a heat wave.

Last week, residents of Ntuzuma protested about blocked sewers.

There are ongoing protests in northern Durban, including Ntuzuma, Inanda, Lindelani, Phoenix and KwaMashu.

Mayor appeals to residents

Briefing the media on Wednesday, Kaunda said 18,000 volunteers will be deployed to all corners of the municipality to clean up the worst affected areas. Councillors will also participate.

“On Monday we had a meeting with the Minister of COGTA, KwaZulu-Natal Premier and MEC for COGTA [Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs] where we agreed that a task team should be formed to facilitate engagements between all affected parties. The task team has been given 14 days to do this work and to compile a report,” the mayor said.

People in Lindelani protested because they were without electricity and water.

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