Johannesburg: The day of the red tide
On Wednesday, Cosatu delivered on its promise to lead one of the biggest marches in recent memory against labour brokers and the e-tolling system. The enormity of the demonstration, Zwelinzima Vavi's fighting words and the presence of one Julius Malema gave the idea that this wasn't about something as middling as e-tolls. By GREG NICOLSON and SIPHO HLONGWANE.
“Libri Thesaurus Animi” – the inscription on the towering Johannesburg Library trivialised the first group to arrive at the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) strike. Within minutes, however, the streets echoed with struggle songs as groups of union members in red shirts weaved through the CBD, arriving by the hundred with hardly 100m separating each. They held placards condemning e-tolls and labour brokers and carried knobkerries, sticks and sjamboks.
It was evident Cosatu would bring the city to a standstill. Usually it takes an hour or two from the announced time of start for everyone to arrive, arrange themselves and warm up with a song or two. There was no such delay on Wednesday. The Library Gardens was swamped in a sea of red that surrounded the ubiquitous truck-cum-stage carrying union leaders and a hi-fi system. Demonstrators swelled into the surrounding streets making it impossible to estimate their number (most guesses are around 30,000; Julius Malema estimated 150,000).
Photo: After a slow start, the number of marchers increased quickly. DAILY MAVERICK/Sipho Hlongwane.
The march was well under way at 09:00. Crowds had arrived by bus and from Park Station by 08:30. With no leaders telling the early arrivals what to do, they started toyi-toying around Beyers Naude Square, singing at a volume that belied their numbers. More demonstrators streamed in, till at 10:00, the crowd set off towards of Park Station and Braamfontein.
Marshals struggled to hold back the crowd as a group ran ahead before Cosatu officials had finished leading them in singing the national anthem. Once marshals established a front line, the march approached Park Station and its size was overwhelming. Demonstrators from Beyers Naude Square stretched for hundreds of metres while another group of 1,000 came toyi-toying down the hill towards them, leaving journalists and police stuck in the middle.
Different union representatives tended to stick together, and it made for interesting observation as to who was more excited among them, who cooperated with marshals and the police, and who was raring for a fight. Unsurprisingly, the most volatile group was the one bearing the colours of the metalworkers union (Numsa). They intermittently sprinted off on their own, knobkerries and sjamboks clutched high, leaving the exasperated police far behind. At the beginning of the strike, there was potential for a very bad day. Fortunately, it seems like very few of the more excited demonstrators were drunk.
The march stopped briefly before the offices of the Johannesburg City Council in Braamfontein (which is now within a stone's throw of the new Cosatu House), before absolute pandemonium broke out when the lone figure of Julius Malema came walking up De Korte Street. The frontrunners (almost all of them bearing the red bandanna of Numsa) mobbed the ANCYL president, all trying to touch him.
Photo: A marshal gestures in front of expelled African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) President Julius Malema as he joins the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in a march in the streets of Johannesburg. REUTERS.
They chanted “Ju-ju, Ju-ju” as they ran towards him. His bodyguard and marshals fended off demonstrators who continued to lunge at him. After each was pushed aside another took his place. The crowd swelled and Malema’s bodyguard held him upright while he walked down the street. Demonstrators around Malema, mostly young men, fought to keep their balance and avoid being trampled while clambering closer, pushing each other and being pushed by Malema’s protectors. Dressed in green tracksuit pants and a yellow ANCYL t-shirt, he looked ready to lead the march as he has done before. But his supporters had only two thoughts: don’t fall over and get closer to Juju. His own executive had to fight to hold back the crowd. Malema looked panicked for a moment but seemed to enjoy the attention and affirmation of the working class. Eventually a black Mercedes Vito rolled up and he was swept away while supporters chased the car, screaming “My President”. The groupies halted outside the offices of the Gauteng department of labour and waited for those without Malema-mania.
At this point, the rear-guard of the march was being brought up by Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, who was accompanied by the poet Mzwakhe Mbuli. Any worries of a clash between Malema and Vavi were quickly quelled. The two took turns addressing the crowd – Juju's very presence was enough to drive the bandannas to distraction. “We are here to support the march of Cosatu. All of us are here under the leadership of Cosatu,” said Malema. "This is not an anti-ANC march. It can never be. You are the ANC, as am I. We will die the ANC!” Malema seemed unfazed by the chaos of his arrival. "The ANC must listen to the masses. You are the ones who voted them in,” he said. His words were brief but his impact was felt by the whole crowd.
“The ANC Youth League’s hijacked this thing,” said a National Education Health and Allied Workers Union member who was angry Malema had stolen the limelight. But it allowed Vavi to work in tandem, seizing the opportunity to address union concerns after Malema’s short speech. Vavi made it clear the strike wasn’t just about e-tolls or labour brokers but inequality and poverty. After listing the statistics, he said the strike is a class struggle.
A 150-minute stint in front of the labour department helped quell the restlessness of the crowd, although the pace picked up once more when the march pointed its way towards the Gauteng premier's office.
Photo: Over two hours outside the labour department calmed the marchers down. DAILY MAVERICK/Sipho Hlongwane.
Malema’s supporters reached the office first and crowded the truck from which the leaders would speak. They pushed closer and closer until the crowd swayed and people complained of not being able to breath. They chanted for Juju and wouldn’t listen to calls for discipline. “You’re out of order,” a marshal yelled at a Malema supporter for interrupting a union organiser. The program couldn’t continue until Mbuli calmed the crowd with a song and gave Vavi an opportunity to speak, leaving Malema to lead a couple of struggle songs once he was done.
Although there were a few representatives from the Democratic Left Front, a few anti-tolling civil society groups and the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), they were on the fringes. This was a Cosatu march. It was a huge and telling demonstration of might, with the ANCYL president taking prominence in the proceedings. Malema said his presence (and that of his deputy and the ANCYL secretary general) was a show of support.
This was before Vavi lashed the ANC, saying that the ruling party had accused the federation of exaggerating the poverty problem in South Africa. “They say we need to tighten our belts but our belts are on our bones,” he said to a cheering crowd. If the government doesn’t scrap plans to start charging for e-tolls on Gauteng’s highways on 30 April, Cosatu would protest on the highways, Vavi said.
He really got fired up when he spoke about how the government had failed the working class. "To hell with economic apartheid," Vavi roared. He also promised that this was the first shot across the bow for the federation and claimed the government has forgotten the poor. "Today we are here to remind some fellows where they are coming from. They don't know anymore the power of the working class."
Vavi's speech was alarming enough for Luthuli House to issue a hurried statement, saying that the federation’s general secretary had misheard the ANC's own statement. "The ANC statement issued yesterday is not suggesting or down-playing the level of poverty that besieges our country and ultimately affecting the majority of our people including workers, as Cde Vavi’s mistakenly seems to suggest," ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu wrote in the statement.
The decision by the union to disinvite the Democratic Alliance suddenly makes sense when you realise that this march wasn't so much about labour brokers and e-tolls (on both counts, the government has nearly bent over backwards to accommodate the unions' demands) as it was a huge show of strength by Cosatu ahead of the Mangaung conference in December. Malema's presence also makes a lot of sense in this context. Attempts to read this as being a peace pact between the ANC Youth League and Cosatu should be resisted – they are temporarily allied through a common aligning of purposes.
By striking on an issue that the ANC will view as having been resolved, Cosatu has successfully poisoned the air between it and the ruling party. It has reminded the ANC that it can, and often does, piss into the tent because it is on the outside of it. In a way, this creates a lot of room for the federation leaders to now start openly debating the leadership of the ANC because they have taken the gloves off against Zuma's government. This is an election year, after all. DM
- Cosatu's Cape Town march: neither bark nor whimper on Daily Maverick.
Photo: Cosatu was successful in its bid to make a point to the ANC. DAILY MAVERICK/Sipho Hlongwane.