We'll stick in your memory.
24 March 2017 17:55 (South Africa)
Opinionista Mark Heywood

The small story of a small but significant march

  • Mark Heywood
    mark-heywood.jpg
    Mark Heywood

    Mark Heywood is Executive Director of SECTION27 and an Executive member of the Treatment Action Campaign.

One of the myths doing the rounds is that this was a social media event. Bollocks. The notion that marches mobilise themselves by Facebook is so wrong. They require human beings to talk to each other, troubleshoot, persuade, take strain, get up early in the morning and get to work.

Despite it being the dead end of the year the #ZumaMustFall marches are generating a lot of Twatter and Facebook heat. Some of it is well intentioned, but wrong. Much of it is ill-informed but valuable, and progressing important debates. Some of it is malicious. In the former category I place social justice stalwarts like Sisonke Msimang and Maggs Naidu. In the latter are born-again sycophants like Mzwanele Manyi and a few of his spinning government sidekicks, and failed revolutionaries like Andile Mngxitama.

The former took to circulating a picture of white right-wingers clothed in the flag of the old South Africa, suggesting they were participants on the marches. The latter is always looking for a white head onto which he can grind his axe.

With due respect to some of my colleagues, I am an activist who acts and reflects with writing rather than a writer who reflects on activism without doing any of the acting. The latter is a lot easier. It is perfectly legitimate, but there is a duty to try to establish facts rather than just work with surface impressions. I had hoped to rest my pen for 2015, but you make my hand itchy. So let me tell you the behind the scenes story of a small, but significant set of marches.

Last Wednesday evening our esteemed President, Jacob Zuma, shocked the nation (and the world) with his 173-word statement firing Finance Minister, Nhlanhla Nene. To the extent that he calculated at all, part of his calculation must have been that the silly season was upon us, and although an uproar was unavoidable it would dissipate quickly as people prepared for holidays.

The “markets” do not have human feelings and do not know tiredness. They spoke immediately, and ironically for all the ANC’s lefty anti-imperialist rhetoric, it was to the markets that Zuma responded a few days later when he re-appointed Pravin Gordhan as our new Finance Minister. All’s well that ends well. But should the people of South Africa leave it to undemocratic markets, with their own hidden agendas, to have the last word especially when underneath the markets, real people were really angry? I think not.

On this basis, on Friday morning an emergency meeting of the steering committee of the Unite Against Corruption coalition was convened. This is the same grouping that had come together, after the Nhleko whitewash, to organise against corruption; the same coalition that organised the marches held on September 30 and October 14. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss a press statement, but such was the mood that we walked out of that meeting planning a march! A few phone calls were made to sound out senior church leaders; one was made to Zwelinzima Vavi to see what he thought. All concurred. We were ready to go. For the record there were three black people and three white people; three women and three men. Not one of them was member of the Democratic Alliance (DA). That was 9:00 am on Friday 11 December. I sent the first tweet at 11.23 am that day.

Our decision was that we would work to facilitate and enable a spontaneous expression of the popular mood in Johannesburg and Cape Town. There would be no buses paid for and organised, and no special T-shirts. The marches would succeed or fail on whether the call for a #ZumaMustFall march would resonate with angry people. Our theme for Reconciliation Day was “No Reconciliation with Corruption”. There can never be reconciliation with corruption, my friend. It is not a misguided ideology. It is criminal, life-threatening theft. The next four days were intense.

One of the myths doing the rounds is that this was a social media event. Bollocks. The notion that marches mobilise themselves by Facebook is so wrong. They require human beings to talk to each other, troubleshoot, persuade, take strain, get up early in the morning and get to work. One of our biggest challenges after we had made the call was to get authorisation - not permission, remember we still have a constitutional right to freedom of expression in South Africa - from the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD). We were already out of the normal 7-day notice period required by the Regulations of Gatherings Act. But in Michael Power and Kelly Kropman, two great lawyers from the Legal Resources Centre, we found people prepared to go the extra mile. This too required a real conversation or three. And over the weekends nogaal. Not a tweet!

So, the first legal letter requesting authorisation was handed over at 9am on Monday 14 December. The first “official” response was that we could march if we paid the overtime of the police (R2,500, we were even e-mailed an invoice!) Then, a few hours later we were told the Nelson Mandela bridge is a “heritage site” requiring an extra layer of permissions. For the rest of the day we were given the run around.

On Tuesday 15 December we had what is known as a Section 4 meeting with the JMPD. Real people had to go and meet real police. After this, authorisation was now officially declined. And thus began a day of behind the scenes phone calls to sympathetic politicians in the ANC (who cannot be named), preparation of an urgent high court application challenging the constitutionality of the decision, and managing a thirsty media, that kept sending mixed messages about whether the march was on or off. That evening, at 6pm, our lawyers started to make real arguments before a real judge in the real judges’ chambers of the South Gauteng High Court. At the same time, I received a phone call from the real Chief of the JMPD indicating a willingness to compromise if we could slightly adjust the route. We stood the matter down before the judge until 9am the next day.

On Wednesday morning the first meeting took place at 7am. Real human beings, of all races and genders, gathered to plan the day’s events. The day’s first radio interviews started at 5.15am. At 8am, Oya Gumede and I met up with two real police officers, after getting a little lecture about not coming with lawyers. At 8.45 – an hour and 15 minutes before the march – we had authorisation. The judge, who had read the papers and seemed ready to decide an important constitutional question in our favour, was told his services were not needed. We were ready to go.

One of the most important things achieved by organising the marches was that they prevented public debate and anger from dissipating. Instead the debates they provoked helped the anger to grow over the next two days. In my view, the march over Nelson Mandela Bridge was a resounding success. The mood was political. The march was multi-racial. There were a lot of white people, but there were more black people. Vavi was there. Lekota was there. Redi Tlhabi ran her show live from the slopes of the bridge. Maishe Maponya, one of our poet laureates, was there. People made their own banners and placards, many of them poignant and provocative. Although social media was used effectively it was not a hashtag campaign. Instead #ZumaMustFall had climbed off the internet and onto the streets, where all people in our democracy could see and debate it, rather than just the elite chatterati. There were several unique things about the march. It was the first march that I know of where no-one was bussed in. It cost less than R40,000 and four days to organise by like-minded volunteers – real people, all prepared to get off their arses to advance a cause, even though we were all exhausted.

So where were the black people?

The “clever” political commentators are playing the “right wing” game, not by raising questions about the racial composition of the marches, (that’s totally legitimate), but by assuming mala fides of the white people who got their comfortable arses onto hard streets. In my view, a view foreshadowed by Xolela Mangcu in a pertinent article in last week’s City Press, the real question should be: where were the large majority of black people, or more accurately where were the poor people? This was a march of the middle classes, black and white. It wasn’t intended to be. But it was. Nothing wrong with that. So where were the black people?

One of the biggest challenges that faces democracy and social justice in this country is that while the poor are no longer in thrall to the lies of the political elite, they are not entirely free. In particular, the workers and poor remain shackled by their poverty, their trade unions and their faiths. On the right wing, COSATU would never allow their affiliates to participate in marches like these - whatever their inclination. S'dumo Dlamini’s job is to shore-up Jacob Zuma’s power.

Regrettably on the left side of the spectrum NUMSA, probably ill-advised by some of its dying-hard “Marxists”, had decided that even if Zuma could be made to fall, that wouldn’t amount to the overthrow of capitalism. And thus the movement was not deemed worthy of their involvement. So NUMSA’s members and leadership were largely absent.

Sadly, many people of faith are also shackled by their Bishops. In recent months, the churches have begun to stand up for social justice again (fumbling their way towards a new Kairos moment?). Yet all it took was for Zuma to offer the South African Council of Churches (SACC) a back-rub on Tuesday afternoon to make church leaders - save for the brave and principled Bishop Joe Seoka and Reverend Mpho Tutu - wary of an open association with the campaign. They trekked instead to join JZ in half empty hall in PE. It was unfortunate.

. and what about the white people?

So, finally a few words on the vexed question of what the whites were up to. Yes. Indeed, many white people did attend. But they were not Blue Bulls rugger buggers (as suggested in one comment I saw). In Cape Town 10,000 people marched, the majority white. On Nelson Mandela Bridge one third of marchers were white. I think that is good. Or rather it’s not bad. Would the armchair critics and lazy academics have us put up a sign saying “a limited quota of white people allowed” on the march?! Why can’t you accept the bona fides of the marchers? On this issue no-one put it better than Zackie Achmat who, in a statement on why he unconditionally supports #ZumaMustFall, wrote:

I demand the equal right for our citizens to criticise government and to support #ZumaMustFall but not racism.

Any #White, or # Coloured racist who uses this moment of danger for our economy to spout their racism demonstrate their support for the return of. Racists are worse than #Zuma...

The challenge facing social justice activists is not to prevent white people from joining these movements but to get them to extend their outrage beyond Jacob Zuma to the truly outrageous things that are happening in our country; like the state of its basic education system and health systems. But that is a discussion that we can now start with the people who - for good reason - joined the marches.

Generally the critics of the marches seem to be people who did not drop other things to selflessly organise the marches (One young black female comrade cancelled a trip to the USA); participated in the marches; or joined the marches, but part of a minority of people who could not see what was actually going on, because they had already prejudged it. I appeal to you to think again. We are all in the same boat. DM

  • Mark Heywood
    mark-heywood.jpg
    Mark Heywood

    Mark Heywood is Executive Director of SECTION27 and an Executive member of the Treatment Action Campaign.

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