Historical pact overshadowed by Samwu factional battles

Questions over whether Samwu’s formerly expelled leader in the Johannesburg region had authority to sign a partnership agreement with the city.
The Historic City of Joburg and trade union agreement fuels Samwu's factional battles. Picture: Supplied

Questions over the legitimacy of the Johannesburg regional chairperson of the South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu) are threatening to collapse a historic agreement signed by the City of Johannesburg and labour merely two days ago. 

The legally binding agreement aims to create a harmonious and transparent relationship between labour and the city by bringing unions into the fold in the budget planning process. It formalises the process of resolving labour disputes where strikes are a last resort and service delivery is prioritised. 

On Monday, Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba together with Independent Municipal and Allied Trade Union’s (Imatu) regional chair Keith Swanepoel and Samwu’s Vuyani Singonzo signed this “groundbreaking” framework to usher in this new partnership. 

Read: City of Joburg and unions ‘do away’ with wildcat strikes

But the Cosatu-affiliated union’s long-standing factional battles have thrown a spanner in the works after Singonzo’s legitimacy as a leader of the union has come under scrutiny. 

Questions over his authority to sign the agreement were raised by Samwu’s Gauteng provincial secretary, Bafana Zungu who told Moneyweb that Singonzo was one of the Samwu members that was voted out of the union in 2016 when issues of misconduct arose after they were elected the previous year. 

Zungu said the group “did not take that kindly” and attempted to overturn the decision through the courts between 2016 and 2018, where the decision was ultimately upheld by the constitutional court. 

I was elected

But in an effort to resolve these internal disputes and resolve the organisational crisis that had befallen the union, Samwu entered into a unity agreement facilitated by Cosatu with the “aggrieved members”.

The agreement signed in June was made into an order by the labour court last week on August 15 and is meant to stabilise the union in preparation for provincial congress where new leadership will be elected in November and ultimately the national congress in March 2020. 

Part of the provisions of the agreement states that members of the union that were dismissed or suspended since 2015 should have their memberships reinstated, Singonzo is among them. 

He maintains that he was not expelled from the union but was “purged” from the administration that was elected in congress for this term.

“I am talking to you by authority,” said Singonzo. “This guy [Zungu] is lying and now he is diverting attention away from the memorandum of understanding (MoU) because he hates Mashaba and wants to taint everything he does”. 

Singonzo said there was nothing wrong with MoU enhanced the rights that workers and increased transparency on the city’s budgetary commitments, which will allow unions to negotiate wages while informed. 

The unity agreement lists the names of six members who are responsible for implementing it in its entirety, this includes Singonzo, national president John Dlamini and general secretary Koena Ramotlou. 

By his interpretation, Singonzo said the list represents the names of the people that are “running Samwu now towards Congress”. 

Zungu disagreed with this saying the matter would have to be taken to Cosatu for them to clarify the interpretation.

Political interference

Both parties have accused each other of being used for political gains. Samwu is an affiliate of Cosatu forms of the alliance with the African National Congress (ANC) whose administration of Johannesburg ended in 2016 when the Democratic Alliance (DA) through a coalition took over under Mashaba.

Mashaba is facing his second motion of no confidence on Thursday brought by the ANC.

Apart from involving unions in the budgeting process and formalising the dispute resolution process, which rules out spontaneous strikes, the partnership agreement also stipulates that the city will not enter agreements with unions that are not recognised by the Bargaining Council. 

Once signed, the agreement cannot be changed by any governing party without the consent of all the three stakeholders. 

Mashaba’s spokesperson Luyanda Mfeka said the city could not speak to the internal rumblings within Samwu merely stating that they only “deal with the people who are recognised according to the agreement”.

Zungu said the union is trying to reach out Singonzo and those who were involved in putting together the agreement before determining whether or not they want it to be retracted.

He said the issue was not with the content of the agreement which he called “meaningless” as it reinforces what already exists in labour law and other national agreements, but rather that Singonzo was entering binding agreements on behalf of the union allegedly without authority. 

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