Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and ANC Youth League president Julius Malema have joined the union federation's march in Jo'burg against e-tolling and labour brokers, with Vavi riding high on protesters' shoulders at the head of the procession, and Malema being swept up by a wave of supporters.
The flagship Johannesburg march is taking in much of the CBD and marchers are expected to cover around 10km on foot. In Cape Town and Durban, the union federation's planned marches are expected to be relatively small and cover only short distances.
The march left from Beyers Naude square in Johannesburg at about 10am on Wednesday as part of Cosatu's national protest action, wielding placards and blowing on Vuvuzelas under a fairly relaxed atmosphere, with marchers toyi-toying and singing struggle songs.
Marshals were controlling the crowd, which had almost filled the square, while more protesters joined the throngs by the busload and on foot.
There had earlier been scattered instances of intimidation, with protesters stopping taxis and trying to convince passengers and drivers to join the march — but metro police swiftly arrived at any flash points to calm protesters.
Journalists, however, were from time to time made to feel unwelcome.
"Voetsek you bloody shit, you mustn't be here," one angry protester shouted at two journalists.
Most of the marchers were dressed in Cosatu red. Earlier in the week Cosatu had said it hoped people outside its affiliate network would join in the marches throughout the country, in particular because the impact of the labour brokers against whom they were protesting would go beyond union members.
That showed early signs of being unrealistic, however, when groups such as the Federation of Unions of South Africa (Fedusa) discouraged participation.
Cosatu said it had first raised the issue of labour brokers in 2010, initially in private and through proper channels, but received no satisfactory response.
Brokers as slavers
As it grew clearer that the government was not considering, at least not in the short term, the outright ban Cosatu has demanded, the union organisation's condemnation of the entire sector grew more fierce, culminating this week in an unequivocal likening of labour brokers to slavers, forcing South African workers into economic bondage.
Unsurprisingly, the ANC has declined to endorse the march, and party spokesperson Jackson Mthembu this week questioned the motive behind Cosatu's strike action.
"Whilst we acknowledge protest as a right, the ANC is of the view that the concerns raised by Cosatu on the negative impact of tolling of roads on people who earn less is over-exaggerated, especially after government intervention on the matter. We believe that the intervention announced, by the Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan during the budget speech this year, [in] the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Programme will go a long way to alleviate financial pressure on the poor and the working class of our country," said Mthembu.
The union federation's nationwide protest has been widely interpreted as a show of strength to remind the ANC of workers' power within the tripartite alliance — although Cosatu has consistently denied any link between the national protest and preparations for what promises to be a fiercely contested ANC elective conference at the end of 2012.
While Cosatu played a crucial role in the election of President Jacob Zuma as ANC leader in 2007, the labour federation is increasingly becoming frustrated with the ANC's failure to implement Polokwane resolutions, which called for radical policy changes.
Show of strength
Cosatu has freely admitted that its ability to influence ANC and government policy through the tripartite alliance has proven unsatisfactory. A strong showing in the streets, a timely reminder of Cosatu's ability to mobilise workers against government (and, by extension, ANC) policy, will not go unnoticed.
But while the ruling party is sitting this one out, the ANC Youth League, however, is another story.
Whether to spite their mother body or to take up the cause of affected workers, the beleaguered leaders of the ANC youth have joined the Cosatu march, with youth league leader Malema appearing to share equal billing with Vavi, the union federation's general secretary.
Cosatu supported the league's march from Johannesburg to Pretoria late last year in demand for economic freedom. — Additional reporting by Sapa