Cosatu launched the largest planned civil protest since the dawn of democracy on Wednesday, voicing South African workers’ discontent over labour brokerages and the planned implementation of e-tolling on the nation’s roads.
The march was not simply a protest by the union federation, but rather a massive non-partisan show of force, where South Africans from various backgrounds united around a common purpose and demanding that their voices be heard.
“They must listen today. We are tired of the government’s empty promises. They take and take but they are not delivering,” Bongani Ntuli, a metalworker from Tembisa told the Mail & Guardian.
Although Cosatu members made up the bulk of the march, they were joined by many civic organisations, opposition parties and members of the country’s middle class.
Not just Jules
The march also enjoyed the public support of ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, who raised the level of excitement by several notches when he joined the march to address protesters in Johannesburg, claiming that — for the day at least — “Comrade Vavi is my leader“.
In Cape Town, about 8 000 protesters handed over a memorandum of demands to the Cape Chamber of Commerce outside Cape Town City Hall, in what was described as an “orderly” and “peaceful” march.
In Durban, about 10 000 protesters assembled at City Hall gardens, where they were addressed by South African Communist Party secretary general Blade Nzimande, who described labour brokerages as slave traders.
“We want to say as South African communists that we are in full support of the workers’ efforts to end this modern-day slavery,” he said.
Cosatu also claimed to have tens of thousands of people marching at a time across smaller centres in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo.
And the labour federation’s North West spokesperson Solly Phetoe said between 20 000 and 35 000 people marched in Rustenburg; in Klerksdorp between 15 000 and 20 000 people; and in Mahikeng between 10 000 and 20 000 — although these figures could not be confirmed, and analysts expressed serious doubts that these were accurate estimates.
Happy marching on Jozi streets
There was a jovial atmosphere among marchers in Johannesburg as they gathered at Beyers Naude Square in the city centre before the march kicked off at about 10.30am.
Milling around Simmonds and President Streets, some protesters took in breakfast from street vendors selling boiled eggs and fried chicken.
“It’s unfair we have to pay extra for things we have already paid for. The e-tolls are just one example of government making us pay when we’ve already paid taxes,” Andrew Smith, an entrepreneur from Sunninghill told the M&G.
Smith said he was also there to support “our people who are being exploited by labour brokers”.
“I have to admit I don’t know much about the real issues but it’s unfair they have to work such long hours and earn such little money,” Smith added.
Whether such sentiments were of any comfort to Young Communist League leader Buti Manamela is not known. Addressing marchers a few hours later, Manamela took a swipe at the middle-class protesters and civic organisations who had joined the march primarily to protest against the government’s plans to introduce e-tolling on national roads this year.
“Those opportunists joining the march only because of e-tolls must now share the struggle of the worker!” said Manamela.
The march got into full swing at 10.30am with protesters heading down Rissik Street towards the Gauteng department of labour in Braamfontein.
En route, Malema joined the procession and was immediately swamped by supporters crying “Juju! Juju!”
Malema was expelled from the ANC last week following a lengthy disciplinary process and many saw his presence as a publicity stunt more than a showing solidarity with South Africa’s citizens.
But he was quick to claim he was not on official political business.
“We are here to support the Cosatu-planned march. The ANC must listen to the masses. You are the ones who voted them in,” he told protesters.
Man of the march
The leader of the day’s activities, Cosatu’s general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, also met up with protesters along the way to Braamfontein.
“Viva Vavi, Viva!” cried marchers as they hoisted Vavi on their shoulders and carried him through the procession.
Eventually arriving at the Gauteng labour department in De Korte Street, marchers were addressed by a procession of speakers, including “people’s poet” Mzwakhe Mbuli.
“It’s not labour brokers, it’s labour breakers — down with slave labour!” Mbuli said, before breaking into song, singing: “Papa stop the war — stop the exploitation”, as marchers danced along.
‘Shoulder to shoulder’
“We are fighting shoulder to shoulder with you comrades, to remind those who forgot the power of the working class,” Vavi said to rapturous applause as he took to the microphone.
“Our campaign has only one reason: We are defending the living standards of South Africans,” he added.
Vavi saved the best for last though, when the final memorandum of demands was handed over to Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane at her offices in Fox Street.
After initially enjoying pleasantries with Mokonyane as she personally accepted the memorandum, Vavi rattled off a veiled warning against the government’s perceived lack of regard to the working class’ concerns.
“Today was the first warning shot, but don’t worry, we’ve got lots of bullets. If e-tolls are enforced we’ll barricade the highways. The same way we made the apartheid system ungovernable, we’ll make this system ungovernable,” he vowed.
The government has yet to formally respond to the marches with both Cabinet spokesperson Jimmy Manyi and presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj not responding to requests for comment by the M&G on Wednesday.
The ANC however said it was “disappointed” with Vavi’s statements made during the march and said it would address the matter in further tripartite alliance meetings. — Additional reporting by Sapa