Pikitup workers. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
Pikitup workers. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

A LABOUR Court judge on Friday demanded answers from the South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu) and its general secretary, Simon Mathe, about why he and the union should not be held in contempt of court after senior officials of the union appeared to repeatedly ignore the court’s orders in a series of unprotected strikes by Pikitup workers.

A standoff between Pikitup and its workers — over a salary increase and a demand that its MD, Amanda Nair, resign — has been ongoing without resolution since November and has been marred by violence.

On Friday Judge Rob La Grange said the court had in February, of its own accord, initiated a contempt hearing because it appeared that its "authority was being deliberately undermined" as the union had, in November, gone ahead with an unprotected strike, despite a court order not to.

Even as the hearing was due to start, a group of people, some dressed in Samwu T-shirts, had gathered outside the court and were overturning dustbins. After the hearing, the street was strewn with debris, as pedestrians had to pick their way through the rubbish.

Judge La Grange would not begin proceedings until he was given an explanation for this, saying that on the face of it, it was "no coincidence" that this was happening on the street outside the Labour Court at the time the hearing was scheduled to be heard. However, counsel for the union Riaan Venter told the court that the gathering outside related to a march to the provincial government.

Mr Venter said the national leadership of the union was in a dilemma because even though it had instructed the workers to return to work as per the court order, it was dealing with about 4,000 workers who had different views about returning to work.

In an affidavit, Mr Mathe said that when the union had tried to organise a meeting to brief the workers on why they needed to return to work, they were "bombarded with death threat messages" from unknown numbers. When a mass meeting had been organised, it became clear that there were people planted in the crowd to disrupt, shouting that "there should be blood".

Mr Venter said the court could only hold Mr Mathe in contempt if it was beyond reasonable doubt that he had deliberately and in bad faith breached the court’s orders.

Judge La Grange questioned Mr Venter on the role of the union’s leadership when there was "mayhem like this". Should they intervene, or "sit quietly (and) let things slide into further chaos"?

He said it happened frequently that the court was told that violence and vandalism were the result of "criminal elements" and not the union’s members. But he asked why this "mysterious group of criminals" — who "hang around waiting for strikes" — would go to the extent of buying Samwu T-shirts and disrupt strikes for no apparent purpose.

Judge La Grange said if the leadership of the unions were going to sit quietly as court orders were ignored, the unions might face hefty fines of R100,000 or more, not just slaps on the wrists.

Pikitup’s counsel, Mike Van As, said Pikitup left it up to the court to decide whether Mr Mathe was in contempt, but submitted that the union should be held in contempt and fined. The court should send a "clear message" that a union’s senior officials should abide by court orders, he said.