In one of the final attempts to make the voice of the South African people audible to their elected representatives, around 2,000 people took to the streets in Cape Town on Monday under the #UniteBehind banner. Organised by a coalition of civil society groups, the march had one clear message to MPs: Think of our interests, rather than your own, when you vote in Parliament’s motion of no confidence. By REBECCA DAVIS.
The #UniteBehind march was still moving slowly towards Parliament through the streets of central Cape Town when the news came through.
“There will be a secret ballot!” shouted activist Zackie Achmat through a loudhailer. A roar of approval went up from the crowd.
But whether the vote in Parliament’s motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma would be open or secret was not the issue of the day. What those marching were demanding was that their MPs do the right thing: not for themselves, and not for their political parties, but for the people of South Africa.
“Our MPs need to be reminded of a few things,” thundered Vivienne Lalu, of the Dullah Omar Institute. “We put them there to represent our interests. It feels like they’ve forgotten that.”
Posters carried by the marchers had some ideas to concentrate the minds of MPs. “Think of Gogo Dlamini when you vote,” read one, in a reference to the name given by former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela to the quintessential South African everywoman. “Vote 4 Madiba SA,” read another.
It was a deliberately non-partisan march, in political terms. The #UniteBehind coalition had previously released a statement explaining why. “We intend for the character of our march against the Zuma presidency to be educational, embracing, inclusive and diverse; instead of listening to a line-up of leaders from every political party, who will understandably be using the platform to promote their organisations,” it stated, pointing out that around 42% of South Africans did not vote for any political party in the last election.
#UniteBehind also explained that they had attempted in vain to negotiate with opposition political parties to arrange a unified march, but no compromise could be reached on the volume of the voice that political parties could be granted.
“In our view, political parties have a loud and dominant voice in Parliament; on this day, the streets should belong to the people,” the coalition concluded.
The streets duly thronged with people, even if they perhaps did not turn out in the quantities organisers might have hoped for. Tuesday will see Cape Town’s streets play host to the “Fire Zuma” march organised by opposition parties, at which a figure of 15,000 people is being bandied about as likely to attend, with potentially as many arriving to show solidarity with President Zuma. Monday’s demonstration mustered only a fraction of that figure, but those who did march were disciplined, vocal, and drawn from all walks of life.
Both before and after the march from Keizersgracht to Parliament, the crowd was addressed by speakers from religious groups and civil society. Speaker after speaker made the point that the people being harmed most by the Zuma administration were poor and black.
Bettie Fortuin, from agricultural advocacy group Women on Farms, begged MPs to think of ordinary South Africans when casting their vote.
“They must come back to us, to grassroots level,” Fortuin said, before addressing MPs directly: “Don’t stand on the stairs!”
Bishop Garth Counsell read a rousing statement on behalf of Archbishop of Cape Town Thabo Makgoba, urging MPs to follow the example of Jesus in showing the moral courage to stand up not just to enemies, but also to friends.
“Upon the guidance of your conscience depend 55-million lives,” Archbishop Makgoba’s statement read. “Your conscience will determine which road South Africa travels for the rest of your lifetime and those of your children and grandchildren.”
The SA First Forum has offered free legal representation to any ANC MP who faces disciplinary action from the party as a result of voting in favour of the motion of no confidence. Convenor Rod Solomons warned the crowd, however, that even if the vote is successful, further challenges would lie ahead. “We demand accountable leaders,” he said.
The “G-word” – Guptas – was raised several times, both by speakers and on marchers’ placards. “How do you steal a whole president?” asked Equal Education’s Tshepo Motsepe. “The Guptas have shown us it is possible. We have a country that has been sold to a family who came here with nothing.”
If ANC MPs declined to remove President Zuma through parliamentary processes, a number of speakers had warnings for them.
“We will be back in our thousands,” promised Cosatu’s Tony Ehrenreich. Reverend Ziphozihle Siwa, of the South African Council of Churches, had a similar message.
“Public interest demands the president steps down,” Siwa said. “If it does not happen tomorrow, dear Parliamentarians, you must know that we will come for you.”
One of the loudest cheers of the day was reserved for Mcebisi Jonas, the former deputy finance minister who refused a R600-million bribe from the Guptas. Jonas did not dwell on Tuesday’s vote in his address, however, preferring to focus on the bigger picture.
“Irrespective of what happens tomorrow, we are gathered here to shape the future of this country,” Jonas told the crowd. “We must as South Africans stand up and take our future into our hands.” Jonas warned that accountability could not be left to the Constitution and the courts, and urged the public not to place too much faith in either Tuesday’s vote or the outcome of December’s ANC congress.
“What is important is that as a society we must come together,” Jonas concluded.
From early on Tuesday morning, the same streets trodden by the #UniteBehind march will once again ring with chants and protest songs – this time led by political parties and lobby groups. But are MPs listening? Only Tuesday’s vote can answer that question. DM
Main photo by Kattie Warren.