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Joburg to Pta: A journo’s personal account

Nicolson left his hometown of Melbourne to move to Johannesburg, beset by fears Australia was going to the dogs. With a camera and a Mac in his bag, he ventures out to cover power and politics, the lives of those included and those excluded. He can be found at the tavern, searching for a good story or drowning a bad one.

“Burn the place down!” I thought. “No! Self-immolation, like that vendor in Tunisia!” After 40kms of marching, I’d finally joined the ANC Youth League’s revolution. By GREG NICOLSON.

Past 22:00 on Old Pretoria Main Road, Thursday last week, Julius Malema’s great march for economic freedom had become a dispersed march of the walking wounded. In search of water and food, I joined 20 young Lions in a detour to the closest garage. I swaggered like the cowboy John Wayne towards the filling station, my hamstrings and calves so stiff my legs refused to bend. But the owners had heard that a group of sweaty, unemployed, underemployed and desperate youth were lurking and had locked themselves inside, too scared even for window service. “Screw the capitalists,” I thought while trying to recollect the standard sentence for arson. One foot after the next, I dragged myself back to the road where the convoy of marchers and police hippos had long since passed. A police car slowed to offer me a lift. “Just kidding,” smiled the officer before speeding ahead.

Foresight might have helped. Despite the ANCYL’s tardiness, I missed the 12:00  start of the two-day march. Journalism, at this stage a rather rotten trade, is mostly about being there, so I ran from Noord taxi rank, lugging my camera, computer and sunscreen through downtown Jozi and jogged up Constitutional Hill. It soon turned into a posse of runners as a unionist, dressed in overalls and a beret, joined the jog. He was followed by a couple of police officers and soon we had a chasing group. Running like thieves past a traffic jam of police who were armed with tear gas and riot gear, we finally caught the marchers, mostly young men, on the outskirts of the city. Without a clue to the pain ahead, the cries of “Amandla!” never seemed more apt for the chase we’d left behind.

A river of stop-start protesters flowed through the plush suburbs on the way to Sandton and at the head of it all was the youth’s very own leader, Malema. I’m not sure how the urban American trend found its way to the front, but the young leader had rolled up one leg of his navy jogging pants, revealing a bright running shoe. Maybe he planned to ride a bike? Getting close enough to photograph his determined stride was a constant game. Walking backwards, you needed to stay ahead of his bodyguards who would take a swipe at you if you got too close. But run too fast from his minders and you might excite the crowd, young men already eager to break free from the marshals. 

A stoic example to the rest of his gang, Malema led the charge and only mounted the lead truck to implore his followers to be disciplined and share water. Not juice though. An officer told me that juice causes cramps. But mostly, it was reporters who were cramping Malema’s space for a photo to accompany some headline about how the march was a flop, or worse, caused destruction. It’s hard to look at the guy and discard the idea that each sweaty step was taken to somehow advance his political allies, to outmanoeuvre the ANC disciplinary committee, or to distract us from his own murky “economic emancipation”.

When the parade of struggle songs and toyi-toying left the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and Sandton was returned to its normal routine of opulence I followed with my colleague Phillip de Wet mainly to see what would happen. Who the hell can walk from Beyers Naude Square in Johannesburg to the Union Buildings in Pretoria? Not me, as it turned out, nor Malema. But some did. Somewhere around Midrand, hours after the sun had set and the idea that the march could tip over at any moment had given way to the notion that “We’re actually going to do this,” something changed. Perhaps it was Stockholm syndrome. But the fact that Juju had walked until now and was followed by a depleted, but determined bunch of youths still dancing their way to Pretoria seemed unbelievable. It dawned, figuratively, that for many South Africans whose belief in the ANC has left a hole, Malema and his call for radical change was a legitimate source of hope.  Not since the 1956 Women’s March had anyone pulled off something like this, I heard. Gandhi’s Salt March was longer, but we walked with the same spirit, said someone else.

For many, that’s a joke. Among the Youth League’s demands was that the state must own 60% of South Africa’s mines and the Constitution should be amended to allow for expropriation without compensation. But, they say, investors must not talk of disinvesting! At the JSE the ANCYL demanded internships for young job seekers and for the end of labour brokers. At the Union Buildings they demanded that the state support local farmers and procure 40% of food for hospitals, schools and prisons from small-scale producers.

On Thursday night, food, no matter where it came from, was my main concern. After deciding to spare the garage from my revolutionary anger I wandered back down the R101. I sprawled out on the edge of the road and waited for a lift while my peers marched towards the Union Buildings. Surpassing all expectations, Malema had cramped on a hill in Midrand and travelled the remainder of the way in a Mercedes Vito. DM


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