South Africa, Politics

Analysis: DA, risking little to win big

By Greg Nicolson 18 May 2012

The Democratic Alliance’s march on Cosatu House has by many been seen as a turning point for SA politics. Supporters from both sides were injured and the DA has laid criminal charges. Why did it go through with the march despite the risks? It was a win-win, says GREG NICOLSON.

As police fired teargas and aggressors from the DA and Cosatu ran into the streets of Braamfontein, photographers crowded a wounded young marcher decked in blue before he was put in an ambulance. The reds went to regroup at Cosatu House and the blues retreated across the bridge into town. A few photographers met near a car, which had all its windows smashed.

“This is a fucking mess,” one said. “It was always going to happen.”

The DA’s march had been pre-approved, but Cosatu was never going to receive the DA with a smile and pat on the back for asserting their constitutional right. After Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi received the police notice that stated the march had been approved, he said union members would be there to “welcome” the DA.

The National Union of Metalworkers’ Irvin Jim was more direct. “If they now want direct confrontation, they will get it. Numsa is ready for them. We shall fight to the last woman and man to defend Cosatu and its leaders,” he said.

Numsa is a part of Cosatu, whose affiliates’ aren’t known for singing Kumbaya during their strikes.

So why would the DA choose to march to Cosatu’s headquarters, risking injury to its members? I have a right to spend the night walking the backstreets of Hillbrow, but I don’t. The DA didn’t necessarily need to assert its right but it saw the situation as a win-win, or at least it found more pros than cons.

If there was no violence, the benefits were clear. The DA could display its efforts to transform the party’s membership base by having a large turnout of young, black supporters. The demonstration would boost its credibility as a party of action rather than one with good ideas that are never implemented. The youth wage subsidy would have been put on the agenda and the DA could have continued its verbal assault on Cosatu.

But the DA probably took the risk because it was likely to pay off. In the face of violence, they could say they weren’t intimidated from accessing their constitutional rights. They could claim some sort of neo-struggle role, evidenced by John Moodey and Mmusi Maimane’s claim the march was as significant as 16 June 1976, and the injured DA member who said he now had his struggle credentials.

If violence eventuated it would be a dent in Vavi’s moral authority. Cosatu never sought approval for a gathering, so any action on its side would obviously be seen as illegal. And, even if stones fell in both camps, blood stands out on blue, not red.

It was worth the risk. The march’s fallout has read like one of Zille’s recent speeches: Cosatu is stuck in “1950s Britain”, it only wants to protect its members rather than the poor, its priority is power and it is intolerant of others.

But will the DA’s decision to battle Cosatu pay off in the long term? As both the DA and Cosatu are stuck in trenches lobbing bricks at each other over the youth wage subsidy, the ANC has gone AWOL. It may even manage to come out of the mess gleaming, playing Kofi Anan by bringing both parties to the table.

Yet, the march has already caused dissent within the tripartite alliance. Jim is calling for finance minister Pravin Gordhan to resign for supporting the youth wage subsidy. ANC Women’s League president and basic education minister Angie Motshekga says Cosatu is sexist for its comments on Zille. And President Jacob Zuma has come out in support of the subsidy, whereas Vavi won’t relent

The decision to march to Cosatu House in spite of the risks may have alienated some DA supporters. An avoidable street skirmish in downtown Joburg isn’t often a pastime of white liberals, but they’ll still vote for the party that needed to shake its image as a “white” party for the rich – and did so.

Remember, we’ve still got two years before 2014. The DA’s throwing everything at the unions to build its profile as a legitimate opposition party for the majority of voters. It’s planning more marches and surely dreams of watching the momentum snowball until it changes course and eventually bowls over the ANC.

The DA will likely continue building momentum. As long as their leader doesn’t come out with another one of her “refugee” comments. DM

Photo: A policeman (R) keeps watch as angry COSATU supporters chant slogans during a march by the Democratic Alliance (DA) South Africa’s main opposition party in Johannesburg May 15, 2012. The march by South Africa’s main opposition party on the headquarters of leading union federation COSATU descended into chaos on Tuesday, with police firing tear gas to disperse crowds of rock-throwing protesters. About 1,000 members of the opposition Democratic Alliance marched through downtown Johannesburg in support of a government plan to subsidize the wages of young people in a bid to ease chronic unemployment among the unskilled youth.The group was met by angry COSATU members who blocked the streets, sparking a violent confrontation that had to be broken up by police. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko.


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