The DA insisted on marching through Johannesburg to deliver a jobs proposal to the ANC at their Luthuli House headquarters. What did you think was going to happen? By RICHARD POPLAK.
“In modern Athens,” the philosopher Michel de Certeu once noted, “the vehicles of mass transportation are called metaphorai. To go to work or to come home, one takes a ‘metaphor’”.
Wednesday morning in Johannesburg was, as usual, jammed with metaphors—in this case, the buses that brought in Democratic Alliance supporters and ANC supporters, who gathered on either side of the central business district.
Viva Helen Zille viva, yelled one half of the city. Viva President Zuma viva, yelled the other.
The meaning of the humming metaphors that lined Miriam Makeba was easy to decipher: in a divided city, which was built to maintain divisions, the buses were intended to make those divisions plain. The DA, led by Helen Zille, were here to deliver a jobs proposal to the ANC, who were encamped to protect the integrity of the revolutionary house by those who hoped to defile it.
Before the first Molotov cocktail had been thrown, before the first rubber bullet had been fired, I stood outside Luthuli House and spoke with a Department of Community and Safety spokesperson named Obed T.I. Sibasi. He assured me that the morning would unfold without trouble. We were standing in a circle of dancing ANC supporters, and Sibasi was explaining how it was his department’s responsibility to protect citizens, not encourage their shitty behaviour.
“That is why we will ensure that the DA will avoid this area”—he was pointing to Luthuli House’s entrance—“for the sake of the peace. That is why we say there will be no problems.”
It was difficult to know whether Sibasi and I inhabited the same reality, because from my vantage point, problems looked both imminent and certain. The ANC contingent, now a couple of thousand strong, were armed with struggle songs, cattle crops, sticks, bricks, bats, flags, freezies, berets, and t-shirts. They were, to my eyes, a fully operational street army. To Sibasi, however, they represented a traffic snafu.
“Will the DA make it to Luthuli House to deliver their jobs thing?” I asked.
“We are not sure of the outcome,” Sibasi told me. “But that is not our business. We are concerned with public safety.”
With that in mind, I strolled along Marshall Street towards the DA encampment, which had been set up at the Westgate Transport Hub at Miriam Makeba and Anderson. A city spliced in half—yellow and green hither; blue and white thon. Getting my white ass into the DA assembly area was no easy task—first, I was frisked by an enormous nightclub bouncer wearing a black dinner jacket, dark jeans and a neon safety vest, and then I was frisked by another. The DA’s security contingent seemed recruited from Bassline and other nearby clubs, their expertise better suited to punching drunk people in the face.
Inside, the DA supporters were armed with t-shirts, berets, white dude ponytails, fat hippies, flags, and signs that read “6 Million REAL Jobs Now”. The DA’s Gauteng leader John Moodey, dressed like an Expendables star in a black beret, aviator shades and a flack jacket, warned those who had brought children to stay behind. “We will have no children on the march,” he said. “We’re marching for their future.” Dead babies, after all, make for bad television.
As the bouncers wrangled the crowd, Mmusi Mmaine—the DA’s candidate for Gauteng premier—swept in wearing overalls and a hard hat, all set to build democracy. (He would shortly have a number of bricks at his disposal). The media was asked to gather outside under the shade of a tree, and await Madame Zille, who would address us before leading the march.
When she showed up, Zille was resolute. Nothing, she explained to us, would stop the DA from executing its constitutional right to march through the city to deliver an inchoate jobs proposal to the baffled concierge in a kleptocrat’s lair.
“We will march for six million real jobs,” she insisted, “and not the bogus jobs that the ANC are offering.” She said that the metaphors the ANC supporters rode in on were “state funded”, and although the ANC army were carrying caveman weapons like branches and stones, the police had yet to do anything to quell their thirst for blood. “We’re protecting the right for everybody in the country,” she said, to deliver paperwork to the ANC.
With that, she donned a hard hat and walked into the crowd, who now doubled the singing and ululations. Zille looked suitably working-person like, except for the fact that her dangling earrings did not seem regulation, and would probably get caught in machinery were she an actual blue-collar wage slave. The DA party bus jerked unhappily into motion, to cheers from those in the mining headquarters that lined the route to Luthuli House.
And Johannesburg did feel like its essential self—a dust and sunbaked mining town, full of people bussed in to work or fight or fleece the joint, and then get the hell out as soon as night fell. The bouncers, who owned the Joburg night, kept a tight cordon around the marchers, with an armoured vehicle and a bakkie (belonging to the ominously named Saturation Unit) taking the lead. All was well, until the proceedings jammed up on the corner of Rissik Street.
In the service of foreshadowing, I asked John Moodey if he was expecting trouble. “We always expect trouble,” he told me, “and that’s why we take these extraordinary protections of the marshals.”
I’m not sure what Michel de Certeu has said, if anything, about the art of the ambush, but it was most beautifully executed in the planned grid of a city. The ANC contingent was now rounding upon the DA march, coming in en masse. The cops quickly formed a cordon, and when the stones and bricks started pouring in, the police threw a series of stun grenades, pushing the crowd back.
The ANC supporters ran toward Miriam Makeba, trying to dog the DA march, which had now turned back because, um, obviously. As the cops formed a tight line, cocking their shotguns, a petrol bomb performed a slow, sultry arc, exploding on the tarmac in a streak of fire. Another tumbled in, which was met in turn with four rubber bullet blasts, and another stun grenade fusillade. Two student journalists, wearing hip-hugging hipster shorts and iPhones, giggled with excitement. “Dude!” said one, “that’s so amazing.”
And so this insane, pointless spectacle devolved into the familiar narrative of white cops chasing wily, be-t-shirted “revolutionaries” down alleyways and streets, guns cocked, grenades popping. It was an artful rendering of days of olde, when Johannesburg was alive with such violence. Except today there was nothing to fight for, and nothing at stake but a fake jobs proposal intersecting with a government already accomplished at creating fake jobs. It was the meaningless jibber-jabber of party politics etched onto the city’s streets, leaving them strewn with the residue of a battle forged by PR hacks.
When it all died down, I spoke with the ANC’s deputy secretary Jesse Duarte inside the air-conditioned foyer of Luthuli House. She looked small and red-eyed and wiped out by the heat. “When you provoke the ANC in the manner that they did,” she said to me, “people respond. This was the march of people claiming a portion of the ANC’s manifesto.”
But what of the fact that the ANC’s contribution to the day’s proceedings was illegal, considering the fact that they did not have the right to gather, and that their members were tossing bombs?
“I think it’s shameful, what the DA did. People came! And when they come, we can’t turn them away. The DA came with batons and helmets and shields. That is provocation! In the history of South African marches, we’ve never been in the position we’ve been in today.”
Duarte was, of course, stating an untruth regarding the DA’s level of belligerence—armed struggle is not in the party’s DNA, and I’m not sure their mumu-wearing numbers would know how to light a Molotov cocktail. But bullshit is one of Duarte’s mainstays, and she looked so tired and old that I left her to it.
I walked away from the dancing and chanting and made my way down Sauer. The city was relaxing, reforming. The DA metaphors were now driving in convoy out of the CBD, and a group of ANC supporters were throwing rubbish from the sidewalk at the departing blue shirts. A large woman with braided hair walked alongside the buses, slamming an empty two-litre plastic bottle of Iron Brew against trees and lampposts, each bang sounding like the rapport of gunfire.
Then, a man raised a brick and aimed it at the fleeing buses. But the cops ran up to him and chased him away into the dust and heat of the useless day.
This is our political discourse. This is what we’ve done with democracy. Twenty years into this journey, and all we insist on writing is metaphors for the past. DM
Photo: ANC members show bricks and sticks as they rally around Luthuli House during a march by the Democratic Alliance in Johannesburg on Wednesday, 12 February 2014. The march for “real jobs” was halted after ANC supporters dressed in party t-shirts stormed and hurled bricks at DA members. ANC members who had gathered in the city centre said they were merely trying to protect the ruling party’s headquarters.Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA