Analysis: The language of marching - will we ever be fluent?

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As the dust slowly clears from the area around Luthuli House after the brief fracas between the ANC and the DA on the streets of Jo’burg, the usual questions about these marches and public violence in the streets will be asked. Why did it have to happen? Why did the DA feel it had to march in the first place? Why did the ANC gather its supporters en masse, knowing full well what would happen? And is there really no better way to resolve differences on policy about jobs? Or is it just politics as usual?

You have to love our politics. The march hadn't even started and Jackson Mthembu and Mmusi Maimane were shouting at each other on Gauteng's radio stations. The blame game begins before the main event even happens. In a way, that says more about our politics, and how it reduces itself to such point-scoring, than anything else. But no matter - the real questions revolve around the politics of marching, the symbolism of it all, and the place that it occupies in our political culture.

As political analyst Professor Sipho Seepe suggested on the Midday Report on Wednesday, to some extent, this was about the desire of the DA to prove that it can march too. This matters. For many, many South Africans, marching is how they do their politics. It's part of the culture. If you have a problem with your councillor, you march; if you don't like the mayor, you march; if you want free electricity and water, you march. It comes with a whole choir book of songs, a choreography of different dance moves, and a language all of its own.

As the DA struggles to try to change its identity, to change the way that it is perceived by the majority of the country, this is a strategic move. It shows that it understands this part of our political culture. It also shows that the party is actually changing. The blue brigade, complete with matching shirts, give the impression that they are part of the majority. The fact that most of the marchers are black obviously makes for good TV. And, as more and more of the party’s members are black, so the pressure to march for what they want increases.

Essentially, in South Africa, there is a lexicography of marching [a Masters thesis just waiting to happen – Ed] and the DA needs to show it understands that.

For the DA, to march to Luthuli House is also to make the point that it is the ANC who is responsible for unemployment. Being politics, the facts don't matter, but certainly, by blaming the ANC, the DA is going to be more successful than by blaming government. It is Luthuli House the party is competing for votes with, not the Union Buildings. But this is also part of a policy by the DA of competing for the votes of the jobless. This is an extension of its campaign for the Youth Wage Subsidy. Then it was blaming the ANC through Cosatu for unemployment; now it's directly the ANC itself.

For the real cynics, there may also be another reason. For the DA, it may be good politics to find a way to show the ANC up as a violent organization; one that's not afraid of using violence to achieve its aims. For the black middle class waverers, those million Cope voters in 2009 who don't like Zuma very much, the sight of rock-carrying ANC-shirt wearing marchers could be pretty valuable. (Admittedly, that is a pretty cynical theory.)

And then we have the ANC and its response.

There are several possible motives for its reaction. First and foremost, again as Seepe pointed out, it was a great opportunity for a mini-rally. In a body politic dominated by a racial sub-text, the idea of Luthuli House being sacred ground, and thus being invaded by this march, is a strong unifier. Instead of the internal fights about President Jacob Zuma versus Gauteng versus everyone else discussions, the organisation would come together to "defend Luthuli House". This is a very similar dynamic used by Zuma during the fracas over The Spear. In other words, you paint the ANC as being under attack from "The Madam", and it will really energise your base. And if you're very lucky, people who were considering not voting in this election will remember who it is that would "bring Apartheid back" and rush out to vote gold, green and black.

But there may be another reason why the ANC has behaved in this way. Some officials at Luthuli House may have been a little worried that if they didn't lead the response to the DA, their own supporters might have organised themselves. In other words, the ANC itself might have lost control over some of its own supporters. And if that were to happen, the violence that we did see on Wednesday would have looked like a picnic. In a case where you can't necessarily control the tiger, you have to at least try to steer it.

No doubt Mr Mantashe is going to deny that strongly, but it's a point to ponder.

If we put all the politics aside, for a moment, there is another big role-player in all of this: the police. Joburg's metro police went on the record pretty early on with the fact that while the DA did have permission for its march (which was only going to end in Beyers Naude Square, and not Luthuli House itself) the ANC did not. Certainly, from a strictly neutral point of view, should such a thing be possible, it could be argued that it was the ANC that was the aggressor, as it occupied that square, when it knew its headquarters wouldn’t be in any danger.

However, when the going got tough, and the ANC marchers started to try to break through the police lines, the police did not hold back. They used the flash-grenades, and sheer physical muscle, along with the Nyalas and barricades, to push the crowds back. While the police have had a bad few weeks, considering the number of protestors killed at their hands, in this case, just about everyone would understand if extreme measures were used (not firing live ammunition, mind, but using rubber bullets) to keep these two groups apart. It would have been extremely bad news if the ANC crowd had got through and mixed with the DA crowd. All the President's Horses and All the President's Men would never have got them apart again. We would quite literally have had blood in the streets. So the police were well within their rights.

But they probably will have to explain why they did not break up the ANC march in the first place, considering it was, technically, an illegal gathering. Actually, the police did the right thing here too. To break up that group of people would firstly have allowed them to attack the DA from different angles, but also would have been unnecessarily provocative. Bluntly, if you have several thousand ANC protestors in a group, what do you do? Of course, you just police the protest, and try to keep order. And hope that it will end relatively peacefully. Which in this case, it did.

Considering that marching is such an integral part of our political vocabulary, we are probably going to have to get used to this kind of thing. Marching is politics through other means. But we must hope that they all end as peacefully as this one. 

By Stephen Grootes

Source: Daily Maverick

Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

Grootes studied at Rhodes University

Photo: A police officer tries to control ANC supporters as they attempt to confront members of the opposition Democratic Alliance party marching in central Johannesburg February 12, 2014. South African police fired rubber bullets on Wednesday at stone throwing supporters of the ruling ANC who tried to confront members of the opposition Democratic Alliance party as they marched in central Johannesburg. REUTERS/Mujahid Safodien