The march against corruption will go ahead on Wednesday, 30 September. The permits have been issued, the marshals are ready. But whatever your thoughts on the event, it has managed to bring a diverse range of groups together. The question is not what it will achieve this time, but what it may achieve for the future of activism. By GREG NICOLSON.
When Zwelinzima Vavi was on the ropes at the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), he issued a rallying cry: don’t moan, organise. His circumstances were specific to the labour movement, but the phrase encapsulates what many in activist circles have been talking about for years.
Since 1994, mass movements, built on active citizenry, drawing divergent sectors of society together on issues of common interest, have fallen away. Scores did come together to rally for HIV/Aids treatment, but that was an impressive outlier. Facing persistent challenges that haven’t been resolved through complaints, the touted solution touches on the ideals of democracy – become active in communities, organise, build, come together.
On Wednesday, hundreds of organisations will come together to march in Pretoria, Cape Town, Polokwane, Durban and Grahamstown under the banner of Unite Against Corruption. Permits have been issued, routes agreed, and transport is being booked. The marches will be judged on how many people turn up, but the real measure of value will lie in whether the collective action can be replicated.
Asked what would make the events successful, Section27 executive director Mark Heywood said the marches should be “very big, very diverse, peaceful – a dignified march where people find their power again”. He and other organisers have been working for months to include as many groups as possible and the event was delayed to allow religious groups to organise their members after they joined. “Numbers are important but it’s not only about numbers. A great deal has already been achieved by reuniting parts of civil society – churches, trade unions, students, artists, NGOs – around a shared agenda for social justice.”
Asked whether the anti-corruption march could promote further collective action from the broad range of groups, Heywood said, “It’s not over on 30 September. That’s the start.”
This week, more than 700 individual artists and almost 150 arts and culture organisations endorsed Unite Against Corruption. They included Zakes Mda, Mark Gevisser, Gcina Mhlophe and Pieter-Dirk Uys. Other organisations on board include Transparency International, Oxfam, Amnesty International, the National Union of Mineworkers of South Africa (Numsa) and its allies in Cosatu, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, Corruption Watch, the Treatment Action Campaign, Equal Education, and a host of religious groups. The list is large and diverse.
“The main building blocks are in place and as with all events there are certain last-minute issues,” said Miles Giljam, a director of the South African Christian Leadership Initiative who is organising the Cape Town march. “I’m sure we’re not going to sleep a lot in the next few days but it’s exciting.”
“In any coalition it’s always hard to bring people together. There are issues of trust you have to work on, issues of culture you have to work on, issues of ideology you have to work on, and that’s probably why we haven’t seen any big coalitions coming together in the last 20 years in this country,” he continued, noting the exception of the movement to change HIV/Aids policy. The building of trust and understanding through the efforts to unite different groups against corruption could help lead to a more united commitment on a vision for the country;s future, said Giljam.
“The target of this march is not the ANC. The target of this march is corruption and we see that corruption is in every sector of society,” he continued. On Thursday, African National Congress (ANC) secretary-general Gwede Mantashe dismissed the marches as a tool by Vavi and Numsa to launch their own organisation, with both recently having left Cosatu and planning to gather unions to talk about the future of the labour movement.
Vested interests are impossible to ignore. Those supporting United Against Corruption include a broad range of interests but the only political party to announce support is the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Numsa and Vavi are key players and have been critical of President Jacob Zuma’s government and both are linked to a potential new workers party and a new labour federation. The perception that the march is anti-ANC or anti-Zuma is likely the most difficult point to confront in organising across society. They are also easy points for Mantashe and others wanting to discredit the efforts to criticise.
“We have appealed to members and leaders of all political parties to support and join. But we will not give any political party a platform. This is a people’s march. All political parties are failing to tackle corruption. They must lead by getting their own houses in order,” said Heywood, welcoming the EFF’s support. “We call on other parties to do the same.”
That’s unlikely. Speaking on Tuesday, Mantashe noted Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s support for the march. “She said corruption and other forms of improper conduct in the public and private posed a serious threat to the achievement of the objectives of development documents such as the National Development Plan,” said a press release from the Public Protector’s Office. The ANC has been critical of Madonsela’s pursuit of Zuma through her Nkandla report and her support for the march will likely be perceived from such quarters as continued bias against the president.
Numsa’s involvement is also perceived by the ANC as bias. On Thursday, however, Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim explained that the march is just one step in its effort to confront the capitalist system. “We’re not marching because we’re thinking that god will deliver new leaders from heaven, but because capitalism is a crony system,” said Jim.
Numsa is still waiting on its section 77 application to the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) for a protected strike to march on Wednesday, but those behind the march will be picketing at Nedlac on Friday and they are appealing to employers not to victimise workers who take part.
“I’m not playing the game of numbers,” Jim said on how many Numsa members would march. Instead he spoke on the need to reform the system. “We’ve got corruption in South Africa not because we have a special sort of people who are corrupt but because of white minority capitalism,” he said. Without reforming the system there’s no guarantee new leaders will resist corruption. Numsa wants national intervention to promote the local value chain in mining and innovative stimulus packages to drive the economy. Despite the government’s talk, inequality, poverty and unemployment still exit, he said. If you look at the sector his parents were in as farm workers, it’s hard to see a difference from apartheid, he said.
For other groups marching on Wednesday, Jim’s broad vision might seem irreconcilable with their goals of reducing corruption within the current system. But they have found a way to come together. Given the ANC’s resistance to the march, it’s unlikely Wednesday will lead to direct interventions against corruption. The question is, can it work towards a new active citizenry where we don’t moan but mobilise? DM
Photo: Activists march during a Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) event during a World Aids Day event in downtown Johannesburg, South Africa, 01 December 2014. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK