Members of the Democratic Alliance (DA) were sent a clear message: If you want to wear blue and espouse the opposition’s viewpoint, you’d better be prepared to take a literal beating for it. But at least the party managed to prove that it is capable of standing its ground and engaging in street politics.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) entrenched a reputation for thuggish behaviour and a intolerance towards those who disagree with it, be it employers or political parties – or at best a complete inability to control its members. But it gained a unifying enemy, and a sense of victory.
Police and the African National Congress (ANC), however, saw nothing good come out of the DA march that ended in stone-throwing and teargas on Tuesday.
The ANC, faced with the embarrassing prospect of its political arch-enemy marching on one of its alliance partners in support of a nascent government policy, first tried to publicly dissuade the DA from its plan.
“The only way in our view that any of the parties can influence one another and even influence government around these matters is through meaningful engagement,” the ANC said on Monday, implying that the kind of public displays both it and Cosatu regularly use serve no purpose.
ANC’s deafening silence
Then, in the aftermath of the violent confrontation between those who support its youth job-creation policy and the group that supposedly helps it create policy, the ANC’s silence was deafening. That alone will be enough to have its commitment to multiparty democracy and the free expression of opposition questioned.
On the streets, meanwhile, a woefully inadequate number of SAPS and metro police members found themselves insufficiently equipped and unable to handle a rapidly changing situation, due to what seemed to be a combination of bad planning and worse command.
Police preparations suggested the expectation that an emotional Cosatu crowd of more than a thousand people would patiently wait for the arrival of a demonstrative DA marching group of closer to two thousand people, and that the groups would then consent to be kept 30m apart, mostly by yellow plastic police tape.
Nobody, it seems, considered that the Cosatu group would have a clear line of sight of the approaching DA group, and would decide to head them off at the pass. If either of the groups had been armed (beyond the combination flashlight and stun-stick brandished by an inebriated young man in ANC Youth League gear, or the plastic whip of a DA marshall), the police would have been unable to prevent serious injury.
As it was, only the fact that neither group had a real appetite for violence stopped rock-throwing from escalating into hand-to-hand combat. That reflects poorly on a police force that already has a record number of sometimes violent service-delivery protests under its belt, and faces the continuing threat of renewed xenophobic attacks.
Gathered at the national headquarters as part of a hostile welcoming committee, some lower-level leaders of Cosatu unions were clear on what they stood to gain from the day: a clear target.
At last, a proper target
The organisation had too often found itself criticising the ANC for corruption or opposing the nebulous concept of labour broking, a shop steward confided. “Now we can point to these people and say, ‘There is the DA, they want to take your jobs,’ and our people can mobilise.”
After the clashes, several union members said they would be celebrating the successful protection of their turf – meaning Cosatu House rather than the idea of protest marches – against the DA interlopers.
But the benefits of a territorial victory over an unambiguous enemy were outweighed by the public relations disaster the confrontations represented.
Cosatu is already fighting against being held liable as an organisation for vandalism committed during the wage marches it organises, arguing variously that doing so would suppress its freedom of expression and that it can’t be held responsible for the actions of either provocateurs or non-members who spontaneously join its actions.
And while it is difficult to say who was more responsible for triggering the violence, Cosatu members at a Cosatu rally actively sought out the DA group – and attacked DA supporters as they retreated.
Innocent victim of intolerance
The DA, on Tuesday, tried to portray itself as the innocent victim of intolerance, ignoring both the fact that it chose deliberate provocation, and the stones its supporters threw.
However, it did for the first time show an ability to use the time-honoured South African tradition of taking to the streets to make a point, an important step in transforming its image. Trying to face down a hostile crowd in what it considers a pro-poor action will also gain it kudos.
Yet the images of people in blue fleeing a storm of bricks can’t do much for the confidence of DA members and voters, notably those in townships in Gauteng.
Such members already regularly express worry that they will be targeted by numerically-superior and organised pro-ANC groups if they express their loyalty, and some marchers were already worried about the consequences they could face before things turned nasty.
“Please don’t take my picture,” a marcher said before the start of proceedings on Tuesday morning. “I have to go home tonight, and I don’t want trouble.”