Tensions run high as climate change march is disrupted

ANC supporters dressed in the COP17 volunteers’ tracksuits tossed stones and water bottles at members of civil society organisations that were marching in protest against climate change, the corporate-funded lack of progress at COP17 and other green issues in Durban on Saturday.

At around 11am, as the protesters were still congregating at Botha’s Park near Warwick Triangle in Durban, a phalanx of volunteers joined the march, in “support of COP17” and “in defence of President Zuma,” according to some of the 200 or so volunteers who spoke to the Mail & Guardian.

In what appeared to be a strategic move, they situated themselves in front of members of the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) and the Democratic Left Front (DLF) — the latter of which were involved in a face-off with the Rural Women’s Assembly against the police at a separate march on Friday — and soon protest songs were being exchanged.

With the DLF’s criticism of President Jacob Zuma’s government growing ever louder, tensions reached fever pitch when several water bottles were hurled by the “volunteers” at the DLF section of the march.

Some red-shirted DLF members responded by singing “Zuma Kwabeta” (Zuma is a racist), which led to further heated exchanges and small skirmishes before marshalls and police intervened.

Planted to cause trouble
Simon Mokoena, a 26-year-old DLF activist and ANC Youth League member from Sasolburg stood staring down ANC supporters with stones in his hands: “They are wrong; we are free to protest and to voice our grievances. I don’t understand why they are bringing ANC politics to this march — we are not here to embarrass … President [Zuma],” he said, pointing to the green track-suited group of people holding placards that read “100% COP17, 100% JZ” and “Fire Malema”.

The tension simmered for a large portion of the march and was finally contained by members of the Rural Women’s Assembly placed between the volunteers and the DLF.

There was a suspicion among many of the activists in the march that the group of ANC supporters had been planted at the march to cause trouble.

Said Pat Hall of street trader organisation, Street-Net: “They are agent provocateurs, here to disturb the march. The [eThekwini} municipality had to be forced by a court order yesterday to allow this march to go along this route because the city wanted us going around in circles at Curries Fountain Stadium today, now they they’re trying to prove that we are violent,” she said.

Cosatu general-secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi told the Mail & Guardian that “while there was a broad church of people at the march with different agendas, we cannot condone the violence that I am told happened”.

Many of the volunteers said they were ANC supporters from surrounding townships such as Umlazi and KwaMashu, who “didn’t want the president to be embarrassed”.

Yet, with the eyes of the world watching COP17, the unspoken message emanating from the group, which resembled what Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s “Green Bombers” might look like if their merchandise was sponsored by a global talk shop, was clear.

Those acting in Zuma’s name have little space for political tolerance.

As Dr Habte Abate, executive director of Sustainable Land Use Reform in Ethiopia said: “I’m not sure what the context of this is, but we are here protesting about global issues, which affect all of us. I am very surprised these people would come here to disrupt the march and fight petty political battles.”

For the latest COP17 news and special features view our special report.

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Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist.

His areas of interest include social justice; citizen mobilisation and state violence; protest; the constitution and the constitutional court and football.


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