Pretoria - Early risers in Soshanguve were greeted by high flames, dark smoke and the smell of burning rubber in Block F on Thursday as fire engulfed City of Tshwane vehicles, resulting in damage estimated at hundreds of thousands of rand.
Four bakkies and a water tanker were burnt to ashes by hundreds of rampaging municipal employees who have been at loggerheads with the city for more than a week.
And as the fire engulfed the vehicles, the workers, employed under the Vat Alles programme, angrily threw stones, smashing the windows of two other bakkies. Missiles also rained down on the municipal building, as the workers smashed office windows with stones and damaged furniture. Computers, desks and chairs were wrecked and then the workers turned to the streets. One uprooted a road sign and hurled it into the fire.
Johannes Mokgaole, a security guard at the municipal offices, said a mob stormed in on the area in the morning minutes after he had reported for duty. He said he was chased from the gate, where he worked. But when he saw the group starting to pelt the parked vehicles with stones, he became terrified.
“I had to run for my life,” he said. Together with other municipal workers who had already reported for duty, he was forced by protesters to stay on the premises.
By 6.30am, the road near the council offices was a sea of flames from burning tyres. It was also barricaded with rocks, bricks and tree branches. Clouds of dark smoke billowed out of the burning vehicles. Part of the fence erected around the premises was pulled down by the mob.
Motorists driving past in the morning had to dodge burning tyres and rocks scattered on the road. Residents nearer to the scene looked on as the enraged workers threw rocks and chanted Struggle songs. Three metro police officers remained in two vehicles parked about 300m away from the scene.
The violence was a culmination of the anger that had been building up in the past week, which saw the workers holding gatherings to discuss their problems.
Last Thursday they failed to disrupt a council sitting, while meetings had been held in various regions before the workers eventually went on the rampage. They also threatened to take the fight to Bronkhorstspruit.
Their anger was directed at Mayor Kgosientso Ramokgopa, whom they accused of having failed to keep his promise to make sure workers were paid their outstanding monthly stipends.
Ramokgopa’s spokesman Blessing Manale said Vat Alles staff weren’t paid their stipends, because they hadn’t worked.
Workers said they were angered by SMSes from the city informing them that they would not receive payments.
Manale disputed that there had been any notice of work termination served to workers.
He said Vat Alles employees conducted violent protests, while demanding to be absorbed as permanent council staff.
They also demanded their stipends that had been docked as a result of their absenteeism from work over the last two months.
Police spokesman Warrant Officer Matthews Nkoadi said a case of public violence had been opened against protesters.
Manale said Ramokgopa had assigned MMC George Matjila to engage with the group as the political champion of the Vat Alles programme.
He added that instigators of Thursday’s protest were identified and served with letters of suspension.
Vat Alles project was launched by Mayor Kgosientso Ramokgopa in Hammanskraal in August 2012.
The project is in line with national government initiatives aimed at creating job opportunities through the expanded public works programme. During its launch it was announced that the project would employ more than 3 000 community members from Ga-Rankuwa, Mabopane, Atteridgeville, Mamelodi, Centurion, Soshanguve, Metsweding, Hammanskraal, Winterveld and the inner city. The city had set aside about R60 million for the project and beneficiaries receive monthly stipends. Workers have duties ranging from general litter picking, the maintenance of cemeteries, shopping centres and open spaces, the clearance of illegal dumping and basic maintenance.