South Africa

South Africa

Desperation, Inc: Pensioners’ Parliament protest – A Long Walk to Nothing

Desperation, Inc: Pensioners’ Parliament protest – A Long Walk to Nothing

On Tuesday afternoon it appeared that a resolution might be on the horizon for more than 100 protesting pensioners who have braved cold nights outside Parliament in order to get pension payouts they say are due to them. Negotiators were optimistic; the pensioners themselves, however, were not convinced. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

On Monday afternoon, it was eerily quiet outside Parliament in Cape Town, but for one of the many school tours that make their way up and down Plein Street. The pensioners who had been sitting on the pavement, sleeping there in the rain for three nights and blocking the entrances until they were arrested, had left as silently as they had arrived.

They were not gone, however. The 137 protesters had been offered shelter in the Central Methodist Mission Church on Greenmarket Square, where they were now sleeping on pews and being offered food and blankets by well-wishers.

By Tuesday morning they were back.

The protesters have been outside Parliament for about three weeks, sparking a national outcry when they were arrested and manhandled by police for blocking the entrances to Parliament on Friday 6 May.

Watch: Police manhandle pensioners and their supporters (News 24)

A spokesman-elect, Elvis Mzuzile (“Presley”, he jokingly completed the introduction), told Daily Maverick on Tuesday that the group was waiting for their representative, Michael Matshaya, to emerge with news of negotiations in Parliament, but that they were not optimistic that promises would be met.

They have not been faithful to their promises,” he said, gesturing towards Parliament. “This is now our fourth time here. We were told on 5 May we would be paid. We have not been paid. They say go home, we will pay you. Then after three months there is nothing, just a promise. After the signatures, they disappear. That is their habit.

This moment, we say we are waiting right here.”

Daily Maverick asked who “they” were; the pensioners did not appear to have clarity on who exactly was dealing with the matter, or how. (Primarily the Department of Labour, at present, who are tasked with unravelling who is eligible for UIF and who not.) Matshaya, however, was a little more optimistic. On Tuesday afternoon, he told Daily Maverick by phone that the matter was under investigation and that he expected feedback soon, possibly as early as Wednesday morning.

Those who have followed the story from its beginning – which goes back a great deal further than three weeks – will know that the pensioners have indeed visited Parliament several times. (Daily Maverick previously reported on the story in October 2015. The protesters, who range from fairly spry 60-somethings to frail nonagenarians, previously worked for the Ciskei Transport Corporation (CTC) and the South African Transport Services, both of which later became Transnet. They were dismissed following protest action in 1988. Matshaya, variously described in news reports as their “lawyer” and “investigator” – and outlined more broadly in his company description as a “consultant” – says they were dismissed unlawfully. The pensioners are claiming compensation for this, plus pension and UIF payments. In earlier reports, Matshaya said some of the pensioners were owed as much as R6 million. It has not been possible to verify this number independently.

Matshaya himself is not a trained lawyer, although it is understood he does sometimes outsource attorneys. Although his company seems to be registered and its description offers legal and debt collection services, it appears from earlier Parliamentary Committee reports on the dispute that he primarily devotes his time to recovering missing pension funds from employers. He does charge a fee for this, to the chagrin of the Committee members, who say in their reports that they have told him repeatedly the right to protest is Constitutionally protected, and free. There’s some debate about whether Matshaya charges R50 or R100 per pensioner for his services – less, anyhow, than one’s garden-variety lawyer.

Going forward, the pensioners have promised not to obstruct the business of Parliament by blocking the gates. But they are also determined not to go back home until they receive payouts. “When we were arrested, it was decided that we should be released,” explains Elvis. “But we were also asked to stay like this” (he gestures at the pavement “to sit down and wait, not block the way. So now we are sitting and waiting.”

Two days earlier, the ANC said in Parliament that it was confident the dispute could be resolved. On Tuesday, however, spokesman Moloto Mothapo reiterated to Daily Maverick that there were no guarantees regarding who would receive payouts and who would not, and there was no clarity regarding the amounts. This is partly due to a great deal of red tape surrounding the claim, which first has to be investigated thoroughly – apparently no easy task, since the case is decades old and involves organisations that are defunct.

The submissions of applications for the UIF have been made to the department of labour, and a determination with regard to who is eligible and who is not will be made soon,” Mothapo said. “The pensioners’ grievances are generally complex and difficult, as they relate to apartheid-era injustice by some companies that are no longer in existence, and would naturally take longer to resolve.”

When Daily Maverick enquired as to an estimated timeline, no reply was forthcoming.

Mothapo has previously expressed concern over the length of time it may take to resolve the issue, however, telling EWN that it would be “very difficult” to resolve an issue dating back to before 1994 and noting clashes with Matshaya, whom Mothapo described as “rude”, “belligerent”, and “on a path of self-promotion”.

In similar vein, ANC Chief Whip Jackson Mthembu recently expressed “disgust” at what he called the “exploitation” of the pensioners’ crisis for “cheap political points” among rival parties.

It may be true that opportunists could potentially take advantage of the pensioners’ need. But in the pensioners’ view, at least, the ruling ANC is the one party that has failed to do so, and if anything, at their peril. One told the Cape Argus on Monday, “It is the people we didn’t vote for who helped us. The EFF brought us food and drinks, the PAC brought blankets, and the UDM cooked us a good meal. The people we voted for never cared for us.”

#FeesMustFall protesters reportedly took the pensioners braaied chicken and stew and suggested they turn their protest action up a notch. When Daily Maverick arrived, we were – tellingly – initially assumed to be the EFF.

Mthembu, however, says the matter is more complex. “This [point-scoring] they are doing ignorantly and without an understanding of the situation and the progressing engagements,” Mthembu said. “This situation involves the livelihood and the health of our senior citizens, and is not a matter to play political games with. It for this reason that the ANC in Parliament, which has been dealing with this matter since day one, had until now opted to facilitate the solution quietly.”

For the pensioners themselves, however, territorial battles on the political field are largely irrelevant, and the slow negotiations have cost a great deal. One trip from the Eastern Cape costs about R500 per person one way, at least; more if the traveller has to come from a rural village and pay taxi fare. Some of the pensioners pay upwards of R600 or R700 per trip, and that’s before the additional costs of buying food on the road, which costs more than food made at home.

Many of the pensioners borrowed money in order to get here; it’s not an option for them to return home without compensation. The inclement conditions have also resulted in illness for some of the protesters, who have been taken by Matshaya to receive medical care. A number of them, one said on Monday, were “feverish”. Five of their number have reportedly died since the last trip.

Our problem is that we want our money in our pockets, here in the same place, not to go home,” Elvis told Daily Maverick. But if that is the case, he and his peers may be in for a long wait. DM

Photo: Pensioners wait outside parliament. (Marelise vd Merwe)

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