Durban - Mayor James Nxumalo and members of the city’s executive committee were pelted with plastic bottles and stones by angry municipal workers on Monday.
Employees had rejected the mayor’s promise to make a final decision only after the elections on the millions of rand in backpay owed to them.
The situation worsened at the meeting at the Curries Fountain soccer stadium when a shop steward – angered by the pelting – pulled out a gun and pointed it at those responsible. A mob charged at him with fists and flying kicks.
The angry employees managed to disarm the shop steward, identified as Sifiso Hlongwa from the electricity department, and pummelled him with a series of blows to his head and body.
Hlongwa was also whipped with a sjambok as police battled to contain the mob and rescue the man.
As the melee continued from one end of the soccer pitch to the other, the city’s executive committee, comprising Nxumalo, city manager S’bu Sithole, Speaker Logie Naidoo, councillors Nondumiso Cele, Fawzia Peer and ANC eThekwini chairman Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo, the MEC for Health, were whisked away by more than half a dozen bodyguards.
Police were able to pull the bloodied shop steward away from the mob and put him into one of their vehicles, a minibus.
They also retrieved his handgun.
Last night members of the executive committee – whose work had been postponed until after the elections – were called to an urgent closed door meeting to decide on the workers’ demands and find a way forward.
The municipality said in statement later that it noted the events with concern. It described the protest action as unlawful and violent.
“The mayor has called an urgent Special Executive Committee meeting to look into this matter and find a way forward,” the municipality said, adding it was committed to finding an amicable solution.
The drama occurred after more than 3 000 ANC-aligned members of the SA Municipal Workers Union (Samwu) packed the Curries Fountain stadium for feedback from the city’s executive committee on a Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) ruling that awarded them millions in backpay.
In September the court reversed the city’s divisional conditions of service agreement – implemented in 2007 as part of a plan to unify the various entities under the newly created eThekwini Municipality – and ordered it to back pay affected employees who had been stripped of allowances and other benefits.
The action was initially brought by two unions, Samwu and the Independent Municipal and Allied Trade Union (Imatu), in the Labour Court. After they won, the city took the decision on appeal to the SCA and lost again.
In October, city manager S’bu Sithole established a technical task team to quantify the financial implications for the municipality.
A report by the task team estimated that the city would have to pay staff more than R185 million in backpay.
According to a proposal, presented to employees by the city over the past month, the city agreed to back pay employees, but only for three years – as set out in the Prescription Act, which states a claim for debt expires after three years if no attempt to collect it has been made.
Samwu rejected the three-year pay offer on the basis that the city “arrogantly” appealed the Labour Court decision and allowed the matter to drag on for seven years.
On Monday mayor Nxumalo, dressed in a black ANC leather jacket, apologised to the union members for the previous administration’s decision to implement the service agreements without fully consulting workers.
He said the new administration was now dealing “with the sins of the father”.
He was however jeered and booed when he told the crowd that the executive committee would meet on May 15 to make a decision on the backpay.
“We want our money now,” shouted a man in the crowd.
“Voetsak,” said another.
As the mayor made his way back to his seat a large section of the crowd began leaving the stadium, some pelting the mayor and his executive team.
Nxumalo refused to speak to the Daily News at the stadium.
Samora Ndlovu, Samwu’s KZN chairman, said the union would not be commenting on on Monday’s events until after further negotiations with the city. He could not say when the negotiations would take place.
Ndlovu also refused to comment on his members pelting the mayor, or the disruption caused by them in the city centre.
“We will comment when the time is right,” he said.
Dhlomo referred all questions to the mayor’s office.
The municipality said in its statement that negotiations were currently under way with the provincial and national treasury and the KZN Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs.
“Since the (SCA) ruled on the matter, the municipality has been engaged with labour on how the decision of the court should be implemented. The negotiations have resulted in agreements on most of the issues by all the parties concerned,” it said.
“The only outstanding issue has been the period within which to effect payment to affected employees.”