Some 160 supporters of the “African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) in the province of Gauteng” marched on the offices of the Mail & Guardian on Thursday to demand “fair, objective, balanced and accurate reporting”, but not, it appears, with the full support of all of their comrades.
The group delivered a memorandum to the M&G, accusing the paper of being “a willing propagandist for the opposition”, consistent in hostility towards President Jacob Zuma, and warned that failure to stop what it characterises as attacks would see the youth league “upgrade and intensify our defence systems”.
The group also cited a cartoon published online by Eyewitness News, which caricatured ANC ministers and those who voted for the party as clowns, and the editorial positions of the Financial Mail as proof that the media must be confronted.
But in a letter of which the M&G obtained a copy, the Johannesburg region of the youth league warned that the march did not have unanimous support, and may be counterproductive. In the letter, addressed to ANC Youth League co-ordinators for Gauteng on Wednesday, leaders from Johannesburg said branches had not been given sufficient clarity on the reasons for the march and that it “might do more harm to the image of the ANCYL”.
The Johannesburg region also said there had never been provincial agreement to a march on the M&G, and requested that the event be reconsidered.
Yet on Thursday leaders of several branches of the Congress of South African Students (Cosas) and local organisers for the youth league turned out to denounce the “Mail & Garbage” and “its white masters” for calling in an editorial for voters to select parties other than the ANC in the May general elections.
The editorial noted that the ANC would undoubtedly command a majority at the polls, but argued it was important to dilute its power by narrowing its majority.
“Never before has the M&G urged readers to oppose the ANC,” the paper said. “But we do so now because the aim is to make the ANC more effective and responsive. It is to hold it to the values it espoused in 1994. It is a tactic that should be palatable even to those who have historically supported the party.”
“There can be no doubt that the victory of the ANC in the fifth democratic general election was not only a victory against the opposition parties as reflected on the ballot papers,” the group’s memorandum read. “This, indeed, was also a victory against another opposition, which is constituted by most of the commercial print and electronic media which, like the Mail & Guardian, launched relentless hostility towards the ANC. In the process, our president was tried and persecuted in the media manufactured ‘court of public opinion’ and, together with the ANC, jointly and severally found guilty in various stories prosecuted in this kangaroo structure that was erected on the basis of politically motivated prejudices.”
In a rousing but hurried round of speeches, after the march was delayed because busses arrived late, various leaders told the M&G, and media in general, “to fokoff”.
“We are here to occupy,” Cosas provincial secretary Khulekani Skosana told the crowd from a mobile sound stage, promising to invade the “Mail & Guardian canteen” and redistribute the coffee and sugar to pupils.
The group had come to the M&G to share with it the truth, Skosana said. “And if you don’t know the truth we are here to tell you: Jacob Zuma is the president.”
M&G editor Angela Quintal accepted the memorandum and promised a response, but also invited ANC Youth League leaders to visit the paper and discuss their grievances, saying the march was a great illustration of democracy in action.
Although the protest included children as young as 13, the majority were matric pupils bused in from townships such as Alexandra and Atteridgeville. They had the day off before writing English mid-year exams on Friday, the majority said, and did not require additional time to study.
A grade 11 pupil said he was attending the march because he is a Cosas members, “which is allied to the ANC Youth League”. He said he did not know about the M&G editorial in question. He said school exams had started but they were not worried about missing out on study time because “we have already studied”.
A grade eight pupil at a different school said she did not know why the march had been organised. “I don’t know why we are here, we just came because we were told [to] by Cosas … What I’m wondering is, will we get food after this?”
One of her fellow pupils asked the M&G for water, while others said they were “tired” and, in contrast to their fellows, “worried about our studies”.
Asked about the attendance of pupils on a school day, a 23-year-old youth league supporter said it was inappropriate. “Those children shouldn’t be here. It’s exams. They must be studying. When I have a child one day I want him to drive a car like this … ” he said, pointing to a silver BMW. “He won’t if he’s marching and not studying.”
An adult league member said he had attended the march to learn the ANC’s plans for the future. Told about the content of the pre-election editorial, he said: “Anyone can vote for any party. It’s a democracy. You can’t get angry if someone says you must vote opposition [and] come here and wreak havoc”. Pointing to his friends he said: “If he is an EFF, or maybe he is DA, maybe he is ANC … I can’t be angry.”
The ANC in Gauteng has been deeply divided in its support for Zuma as party president, illustrated by events in the province where he was booed by the crowd in late 2013 and early 2014. In less public fashion, the battle between the pro- and anti-Zuma factions also played out in the selection of the province’s premier and staff within the provincial government.
Thursday’s event had a distinctly pro-Zuma flavour, with T-shirts and printed banners sporting messages such “attack against our president is an attack on the ANC and democracy”. – With additional reporting by Matuma Letsoalo