The owners of Dippin Blu Racing in Fairview, Port Elizabeth are considering legal action against a group of its former groomers stormed the stables in protest on Thursday, killing one horse and injuring over 20 others.
"This is the worst day of my life. What they have done to my horses is barbaric and no human being can do that to animals. They stabbed and stoned my horses. One is dead and 29 are injured and traumatized. The vet will determine later the extent of injuries," said a distraught Hedley McGrath, owner of Dippin Blu.
The conflict appears to stem from an incident in February. A worker apparently injured a horse. McGrath says the worker stabbed a horse in the neck, while the workers dispute this, saying the worker mistakenly cut a horse's ear during grooming.
McGrath said: "All these [workers] looked after million rand expensive race horses that can't even harm a fly. They came to me on 14 February after the incident happened on the 7th. They said please boss pay this guy so that he can go away. I said I don't pay someone who stabs my horse and no one can bribe me. He stabbed my horse on the neck and it nearly died. Then they decided to stay home and not come to work."
But Mbeko Kolisile, a worker, said: "In February one of our colleagues was busy cutting one of the horse's hair. The horse jumped and he mistakenly cut its ear. But our boss got angry and fired him, claiming that the vet would charge him R13,000. We asked the owner not to fire him but to deduct the money from all of us because that mistake could happen to all of us. But he fired all of us instead."
The workers took the matter to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) in March just before the national lockdown was implemented. "During level 4 of the lockdown we went back to the CCMA and we were asked to lodge a new complaint. Our boss told us that we can go anywhere but we will never win our case. We then decided to drop the case and ask for our UIF and service money because we are financially struggling," said Kolisile.
On Wednesday, the workers went to the Port Elizabeth Department of Labour to apply for UIF and were told they were not eligible because they had absconded from work.
On Thursday, the workers and surrounding community members stormed the stables and began attacking the horses with stones, pangas, sticks and knobkerries. Police were called to disperse them with rubber bullets and stun grenades.
According to police spokesperson Colonel Priscilla Naidu, more than 150 protesters from the Fairview Informal settlement freed about 28 horses early on Thursday. She said witnesses reported the horses "running in all directions with their abusers taunting them with sticks and stones".
Naidu said the injured horses were treated by the Animal Anti-Cruelty League. "A case of malicious injury to property is opened and under investigation," she said.
After the incident on Thursday, McGrath said: "We don't owe them a cent and we followed all the labour laws of this country. I have a court order against them. Now I am busy with my legal team to see which is the next step to take.
"These horses are owned by prominent people who are now also calling me to check on the safety of their horses."
On the threat made by the workers that they would continue protests, preventing any racing from taking place at Fairview racecourse, McGrath said: "My company just trains the horses and we have nothing to do with the race course."
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