Bricks, Rocks, Screams: DA battles Cosatu on Johannesburg streets
The Democratic Alliance marched to Cosatu House in Johannesburg on Tuesday to promote the youth wage bill. There were plenty of flying bricks and words of war, but not much was said about the bill. By GREG NICOLSON.
DA leader Helen Zille appeared at the head of the march just after it started. Journalists swamped her. A sea of royal blue shirts continued to surge behind. Marshals pushed photographers back so the march could progress without Zille being crushed. She was on the frontline, leader of a struggle to boost employment.
The DA were marching on Cosatu House to promote the youth wage subsidy. Finance minister Pravin Gordhan had announced the policy to offer employers incentives to employ 18 to 29-year-olds. The policy would cost R5-billion over five years and create over 400,000 jobs. Cosatu has been adamant in its rejection of the plan.
“We want the government to subsidise the youth,” said engineering student Floyd Themba, 23. “We are tired of corruption and empty promises.” He was one of the estimated 1,500 people who gathered in Beyers Naude Square prior to the march. The majority were young and black.
A group of young Zulu dancers led them out of the square. Behind them marshals formed a line to hold back the crowd, hidden under a canopy of “Youth wage subsidy now” placards. Zille was flanked by DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko, national spokesman Mmusi Maimane and provincial youth leaders.
Marshals struggled to hold back the swell and as the march rounded the bend on Queen Elizabeth bridge into Braamfontein, 2,500 people had joined Zille. Police directed them right, towards Cosatu House, at Jorissen Street. But only a handful of Metro cops stood directing traffic.
Union members had been gathering on Jorissen Street since early morning. As blue shirts could be seen walking towards Beyers Naude Square, they were passed by almost as many red, Cosatu-affiliated shirts heading in the opposite direction.
When the unionists spotted the tide of DA members they toyi-toyied down the hill, chanting for the DA to retreat. The groups met, singing and chanting, a group of journalists and a few police in between. Blue on one side, red on the other.
A Talk Radio 702 reporter claims the DA responded to Cosatu’s attack. A Cosatu supporter was filmed trying to Taser a DA member. And Cosatu were specifically trying to “defend” their base. I couldn’t see where the first stone or brick came from, but they came.
Marchers from both sides snatched projectiles from wherever they could. Cosatu members dodged a brick thrown from the DA. It shattered as it fell on the road. They picked up the fragments and launched them into the air. The rocks came like birds and swooped into the crowd.
The situation calmed as the chants for peace came from the DA truck. Supporters of Cosatu were still hostile, holding rocks in case of another barrage. Some Cosatu members were convincing each other to avoid violence.
“Both parties were throwing rocks. Cosatu were throwing them back,” reckoned M Kraai, a South African Municipal Workers’ Union member.
“It has never in history happened that an opposition party marches on our own house,” said Numsa member Calvin Madibeng.
DA marchers said the attack was unprovoked. “Where are the police?” a DA member continually yelled to news networks. “We’ve been let down by the ANC-led police!” A few armed police stood between the groups, most of which had dispersed after the violence.
The DA’s Maimane said Cosatu should take ownership for the confrontation and accused its leaders of being irresponsible for letting its youth confront the DA alone. Where are their leaders, he asked, saying the DA would continue to present its memorandum on the youth wage subsidy.
Before retreating because of injuries, Zille got to speak. “We all want to live lives that contribute to society. We all want to support ourselves and our families. We all want to ensure that our children have more opportunities than we did.”
“Voetsek!” yelled Cosatu members as the DA walked up De Beer Street. A group of unionists walked up a parallel street, dancing and singing. Down an alley, they could see flashes of blue.
They ran towards the DA, parked outside Witwatersrand University. Some Cosatu supporters held knobkerries, some rocks, but most were unarmed. The groups met, separated for a moment by a few police and photographers.
The rocks came again like hailstones from both sides. Those caught in the crossfire hid behind street poles as individuals stepped out into the gap to pitch a stone. The large crowd ran for cover as police fired teargas in the air. As the crowd dispersed, police in riot gear cleared the remaining agitators.
A Cosatu group pursued the DA but were repelled by a police water cannon. At least 12 injuries were reported, including supporters from both sides, and journalists.
Union leaders addressed members outside Cosatu House. Laughing as a comedy skit tore into the DA and Zille, Vavi said violence is always regrettable but he heard the opposition had rocks on their truck. He said he couldn’t accompany his marchers because it wasn’t approved as a legal demonstration.
He said the march was a sign the opposition was gaining strength because democracy hasn’t seen the nation’s wealth shared among all South Africans. “Today we’re here to say, ‘Come, bring it on,’ he told the crowd. “To hell with you (DA). You can take some but not all of us,” he yelled.
Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini said, “We warned the DA. We warned them.” He accused Zille of wanting to start black-on-black violence. “Whenever you see a Zille supporter, teach them what we stand for,” he said, adding Cosatu stands for workers’ rights.
The DA will lay criminal charges against Cosatu’s leadership on Wednesday for intimidation, inciting violence and holding an illegal gathering. National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa general secretary Irvin Jim said Cosatu’s leaders would discuss laying charges against the DA. Jim has been accused of fuelling violence in the lead-up to the march.
Zille started the day as the image of a leader of the people. Cosatu asserted itself as leaders of the same struggle in which violence and warmongering replaced any real debate.
Not much was said about the youth wage bill. DM
- DA Youth vs Cosatu – youth wage battle lines are drawn up, sharply in Daily Maverick.
- DA vs Cosatu: a war with one winner, the ANC in Daily Maverick.
Photo: Helen Zille led the march to Braamfontein flanked by young leaders Lindiwe Mazibuko and Mmusi Maimane to chants “Viva, Zille, viva!” Photo by Thapelo Motsumi.