South Africa

South Africa

Walking and talking: Unite Against Corruption finally hits the road

After a delay and much handwringing, Unite Against Corruption finally got to walk to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, and to Parliament in Cape Town. Was the inaugural event of what the organisers promise will be a robust and lasting movement a success? RICHARD POPLAK donned sensible shoes in order to find out.

Under ancient oaks and flamboyants and jacarandas, alongside a brilliant stretch of hot pink bougainvillea, on the recently mown grass of Pretoria’s Burgers Park: the Order of the Dragon biker gang. I use the term ‘gang’ poetically, for the Order of the Dragon did not seem the type to deal crack and Kalashnikovs. They roared into the capital in order to lend their support to a leather-clad coalition called Bikers Against e-Tolls (BAT), who are in turn members of a movement called Unite Against Corruption (UAC).

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Shaun Pfister, one of BAT’s two spokespeople, told me he was fed up with the rot in this country. “The whole place is on its knees. We pay tolls, taxes and the fat cats aren’t tightening their belts. They were voted in by the people, but they don’t serve the people. They serve themselves.”

Pfister is as mad as hell, and he and his biker pals aren’t going to take it anymore. They routinely engage in highway slowdowns, backing up traffic in order to protest the fact that Harleys—like Volkswagen Polos and Mitsubishi Pajeros—must pay to use highways he insists were paid for years ago. “We have nearly 24,000 members,” Pfister told me, and waited for my gasp to subside. “Ja. Twenty. Four. Thousand. Corruption is everywhere. It’s tolls. It’s the cop taking his KFC, and Zuma taking R247-million for his kraal. It’s everywhere.”

BAT serves as a perfect explainer for Unite Against Corruption: minutely specific interest groups painted with pointillist detail onto a vast canvas. Everyone—and when you see how this story ends, you’ll see that I do mean everyone — hates corruption. So let’s do a tally: the Economic Freedom Fighters (in decent numbers), Congress of the People (about 10 people, which counts for them as decent numbers), the Workers Socialist Party, The Long Walk To Freedom From Corruption, the United Democratic Movement, the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance, every church you can name (and a few you can’t), the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) — about 50 different groups amounting to roughly 4,000 people. What a country! Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, a guy in a skull helmet shows up on his chopper and goes for a walk with a Coptic priest and the dude for whom the portmanteau ‘tenderpreneur’ was coined.

At about quarter to noon, the loud hailers began hailing, and the masses were herded out of Burgers Park to reveal themselves as not so much a mass but a big crowd. “Oh, I never give numbers to the media,” former Congress of South African Trade Unions spokesperson Patrick Craven told me. But the old war horse, a VIP lanyard dangling around his neck (capital’s monarchical privileges are tough to shed) was nonetheless chuffed with the turnout. “I’m particularly pleased with all the trade union T-shirts here today, given that we didn’t get our Section 77 certificate [in order to legalise a strike action]. We’re certainly not on the level of the mass actions of the 1980s, but I’ve been telling the media — wait two weeks, until the general strike on October 14. Then we’ll see.”

Indeed, this march was recently rebranded by the UAC as a mini-march, a prelude. The luminaries present, including Julius Malema and the United Democratic Movement’s Bantu Holomisa, gathered before a makeshift stage, and pitched the crowd on a vast, inclusive movement — the beginning of a popular war against a kleptocracy gone haywire. Wasn’t it just yesterday, Numsa deputy secretary Karl Cloete asked us, that another big corruption story had splattered all over our media devices? According to the terms of a US Securities and Exchange Commission settlement, Hitachi is said to have paid Chancellor House, the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) investment wing, a ‘success fee’ for any power station contracts secured by the multinational.

Why does the ruling party of a country need an investment wing? All together now: Corruption!

After a gentle slam poetry session, Holomisa took to the stage. “Unfortunately, I am no longer in charge of the military,” he said, “or I would long ago have shown [the ANC] the door.” Just sit with that one for a moment. South Africa’s first retroactive coup! The whole thing was so damn loopy that I couldn’t help but smile between sips of my nongovernmental organisation-branded water. It must not have been easy trawling this screwed up country in order to organise a march/spoken word fest/political rally/church picnic/biker coffee klatch in the middle of a spring heat wave in the nation’s executive capital. (Similar march, with less star wattage, were happening concurrently in Cape Town.) At least somebody is doing something, right? Right?

At about 12;30, the crowd was ushered by a ring of marshals toward the Union Buildings. Because he’s South Africa’s alpha male, Malema insinuated himself into the centre of the the frontline, which a wag on Twitter insisted resembled a front row given the collective girth on display. (It could be argued that the Springboks need these men more than the country does, but that’s an argument for another time.)

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I found myself walking alongside Section 27’s Mark Heywood, one of UAC’s principle organisers and the coalition’s most passionate defender. I wanted to know how he was feeling about the whole thing. “I’m feeling good!” he said. “I would have liked a bigger turnout, but the diversity is good. I think we’re starting something. Every movement starts somewhere.”

Was he surprised that Malema had shown up? “Not at all. We’ve always said that this is not a march organised by a political party, but we welcome political parties who are willing to do more to tackle corruption. Look, the critics will rubbish all of this, but we’ll show in the days and months ahead that we’re serious.”

The things humans do for freedom! The long walk under the hot sun finally led us to the Union Buildings, corruption’s ground zero. But we must now take a short interlude to be fair to the rulers of this country. Bent as they may be, this is a very easy place in which to remind them of their manifold sins. Too easy. Suspiciously easy. Oh, sure the National Economic Development and Labour Council threw up a roadblock by delaying a strike certificate, ensuring that workers would not be able to attend in significant numbers. That’s kindergarten politics. There were no helicopter gunships strafing the crowd with high-calibre malevolence. Four thousand people gathered at the steps of the Union Buildings to crap all over the ANC, and no one died.

Why not? Why isn’t this government scared of its people? I’d argue, as I’ve argued all along, that ‘corruption’ is simply too big a conceptual umbrella — so big, in fact, that you could very well find yourself yelling Amandla alongside the very people you’re trying to bring down. (That statement, by the way, counts as foreshadowing.) The folks here were all too nice, the slam poetry too anodyne, the inclusivity too inclusive. The ANC and their cronies — Hitachi being but the latest — are corrupt to their very core. But no more corrupt than the next guy. They just happen to be very well behaved, very obedient neo-liberals.

It’s the system, baby! In order to break it, rage will be needed. There is lots of rage on tap in South Africa. None of it was to be found at the foot of the Union Buildings on Wednesday afternoon. The UAC coalition will need to go looking for it, before it comes looking for them.

I am not kidding, but Jeff Radebe showed up. The Minister of Everything pulled into Dodge just before 14:30, stepping out of a spanking white Mercedes E300 like a carnivore about to order a vegan burger. Minutes later, Malema took to the stage. “Jeff, in 2019, you will see this building from your television,” said Juju. “You will be at home. You do not belong here.”

Remember how I said that everyone hates corruption? Remember that stuff about the umbrella? Here’s what the ANC had to say about the hoopla unfolding beneath Radebe’s billion-rand loafers:

“The African National Congress welcomes the initiative by a collective of South African organisations including civil society formations to march against corruption. We welcome this initiative as the ANC has always argued and located the issue of corruption as a societal issue that requires societal rejection and action.

“We are hopeful that these organisations will continue working with our government to subdue the scourge of corruption wherever it manifests itself. We add our voice that society must not tolerate corruption and must continue with this initiative by exposing it wherever it rears its ugly head.

“We are hopeful that society’s action using anti-corruption measures introduced by our government will assist to stamp out this scourge. Let us act in unison to make South Africa intolerant of corruption. The ANC and government at all levels remain committed to work with broad societal formations to promote zero tolerance for corruption.”

So there you have it. A fine day in the sun. Consensus reached in newly un-balkanized Mzansi. (Although it must be said that the Democratic Alliance were notable by their absence. Perhaps they didn’t want to endorse an event where Die Stem was excised from Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. Perhaps they’re just tired of walking and handing doorstop documents to janitors in the Union Buildings.) The UAC might be the beginning of a movement; it might be a tiny piece of mosaic placed in a giant frieze of change; it might be nothing at all. As everyone was careful to point out, the Big Strike on 14 October will be far more indicative of the organisation’s strength. But I worry that Zwelinzima Vavi and company have got it all wrong. “Unless the African National Congress stops being the African National Corruption,” he bellowed, “they will feel guilty about us marching here today.”

Not nearly as guilty as he pretends to assume. DM

Photo: Julius Malema (C), Leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party takes part in an anti-corruption march against the Government, in Pretoria, South Africa, 30 September 2015. According to reports members of some 29 civil organisations and eight unions marched through the streets of South Africa’s capital to hand over a memorandum to Government officials. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK.

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