Cape Town - The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in the Western Cape admits that preventing “scab” labourers from getting to work and shutting down operations at construction sites forms part of its members’ strategy in the ongoing industrial action.
But Happiness Holiday, the NUM’s Western Cape general secretary, said these strategies needed to be employed peacefully according to the union’s rules. It was against the rules to use violence or assault, to gain illegal entry to a construction site and to vandalise assets.
The Cape Argus contacted Holiday after viewing CCTV footage of strikers descending on an Engen petrol station on the corner of Hindle Road and the R300, which is a known pick-up point for workers between 5am and 6am.
Staff at the Engen painted a picture of momentary chaos and violence in the minutes before police arrived.
The footage shows men, some in balaclavas, armed with sticks, knobkieries and pickaxe handles, arriving at the petrol station shortly after 6am. They speak to petrol attendants and point this way and that with their sticks
“At first things seemed calm,” said an employee who asked not to be named. “But then they started threatening people and smashing some of the bakkies at the pumps. We were scared so we ran inside.”
Subsequent footage shows half a dozen men running for the door of the Engen’s shop to escape stick-wielding protesters. Some of the men are assaulted.
Soon the doors jam (presumably after being locked from the inside) and an unarmed man is left pulling and banging on the door as he tries to escape the attackers. Unsuccessful, he runs off into the darkness of the veld alongside the shop.
Later, employees told the Cape Argus, attackers pried open the shop’s doors, but by then the people inside had barricaded themselves behind a security door inside the shop.
“One man was not so lucky,” an employee told the Cape Argus.
“He was beaten very badly and taken into the veld, away from the lights, by four men. I do not know what they did to him there, but it was a few moments before the police arrived. All the strikers scattered then, and I think that that man would have been killed if the police had not arrived just then.”
Two bakkies were damaged and one had to be towed away.
Presented with these details, Holiday said union members were not acting on instruction from the NUM when perpetrating acts of violence or criminality.
Police confirmed “unrest” related to the strike in several areas early on Wednesday. Hindle Road in Delft was closed for several hours during peak traffic hours. Police also responded to flare-ups in the Old Faure Road, Lwandle, Borcherds Quarry and the Strand. There were no arrests.
Holiday said there was no evidence to suggest that NUM members were behind the violence, adding NUM members were often blamed for the transgressions of other unions, particularly those of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), owing to the similarity of the unions’ names.
The City of Cape Town said 50 striking workers, some in Numsa T-shirts, had invaded a construction site office in Heideveld where government houses were being refurbished.
Some of the contract staff were assaulted. Three people suffered “fairly serious” injuries and were taken to hospital. Numsa has denied that its members were behind the assault.
The violence against ordinary workers - allegedly by striking civil engineering contractors – has been slammed as “deplorable”.
In numerous places across greater Cape Town on Wednesday, workers were intimidated, prevented from leaving their suburbs for work and, in some cases, violently assaulted.
Michael Bagraim, chairman of the human capital portfolio committee at the Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry, reported that many of these victims had “nothing whatsoever” to do with the civil engineering or construction industries – and were still being targeted.
“This is deplorable, and must be a first. People are being accused of being scab labour when they have nothing whatsoever to do with this strike or this industry.”
Asked about the effect of the strike on business, Bagraim said companies were losing money in lost working hours, and these delays came on top of delays from the recent wild winter weather.
But despite low turnouts by workers, construction was continuing on many sites.
Sources told the Cape Argus there were simply too many civil engineering construction sites for the strikers to man.
“The real cost is to the ordinary people who are prevented from earning a living,” Bagraim said.
The strike involved two unions, the National Union of Mineworkers and the Building Construction and Allied Workers Union (Bcawu). Bcawu struck a deal with the South African Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors (Safcec) on Monday, which will remain operational until August 31, 2016.
“The accepted offer allows for a 10 percent wage increase for categories Task Grade 1 to 4 and 8 percent wage increase for categories Task Grade 5 to 9. In addition, severance benefits for the industry were also improved,” Safcec reported.
Strike violence is ‘deplorable’ although Holiday was reluctant to say that NUM was not in charge of its striking members, a picture of relative regional autonomy in decision-making by striking workers emerged.
Divided according to their place of residence – as opposed to the companies they worked for – members have formed groups that have met daily in their neighbourhoods. They seem to be taking their cues from shop stewards local to their areas. Holiday, however, maintained that these leaders took instruction from and reported back to head office during the day.
Provincial representatives from NUM will meet in Johannesburg on Thursday in an attempt to soften their demands before continuing negotiations with employers.
The NUM is demanding a 13-percent increase for this year and 14 percent for next year. Employers are offering a 10-percent increase for the lowest-paid workers and an eight-percent increase for higher-earning workers, with inflation-linked increases next year.
Additional reporting by Murray Williams.