Sticks and stones: The DA’s march to remember

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In the end, the DA hordes didn’t get anywhere near Luthuli House. Their much-hyped march on the ANC headquarters was stopped in its tracks by a sea of yellow shirts and bricks, but not before the DA had proved its point: that the ANC, for all its electoral dominance, is running scared. Oh, and that the old ‘white party’ label might just be starting to fade.

Wednesday was a good morning for a march. The sun was out, the sky was blue, and everyone was in good spirits. At the Westgate transport hub in Johannesburg’s CBD, a few thousand blue-shirted DA supporters did a bit of dancing and singing, exhorted by the speakers using the DA truck as a makeshift stage. They’d been bussed in from all over Gauteng, and they were all very clear about why they were here: to register their displeasure at the ANC’s failure to create jobs. The DA, of course, would do it better: “If we get the economy working, the economy will create jobs,” said Tsietsi Tsotetsi, a young DA member from Johannesburg, making it sound like the easiest thing in the world.

Just 500 metres away as the crow flies, a similar number of yellow-shirted ANC cadres were doing much the same thing outside the ANC’s Luthuli House headquarters, although their singing was louder and their dancing more vigorous. They’d also been bussed in (if nothing else, credit must go to both parties for pulling off a complex transport operation). Their mission was simple: to protect the “revolutionary space” that is Luthuli House from the impending DA attack, and to show the DA that the ANC could still shout louder. “We’d like to thank Madame Zille for organising such a big ANC rally,” observed one of the ANC’s speakers, to guffaws from the crowd.

By then, however, Luthuli House itself had already been protected by the South Gauteng High Court, where the DA and ANC reached an early-morning agreement that the DA’s march would end at nearby Beyers Naude Square. In the end, the DA didn’t even get that far.

As soon as word reached Luthuli House that the DA was on the move (the march left Westgate at around 11.30am), hundreds of comrades forced their way to the police barricades on the outskirts of the square, brandishing sticks, knobkerries and bits of brick. “This is a weapon,” said Pontsho Makgabo from Alexandria, clutching a large rock in her hand. “We’re going to moer them.” Makgabo said she was planning on throwing her stone regardless of the DA’s actions. “They are disrespectful. They mustn’t come to Luthuli.”

Although the police held firm on one end, they simply did not have the manpower to corral all the ANC’s support, who soon found a different route that took them closer to the DA march. On Rissik Street, the yellow shirts caught sight of the blue shirts, and charged forward, throwing a barrage of rocks in the DA’s direction. It was ugly, but it might have been even uglier if not for some canny policing. A few well-timed stun grenades were enough to take the sting out of the charge, allowing the police to reassert their authority. Credit too must go to the various ANC members who pleaded with the crowd to stay back.

At this point, the DA (with a stern nudge from JMPD) realised that little could be achieved by marching any further, and turned back. A smaller band of ANC support again chased after them, trying to intercept the DA on at least three intersections along the way back. Again, good policing kept the two crowds apart, for the most part. Still, there were tense moments: several more stun grenades were fired, and at least four rubber bullets shot. On the ANC side, at least three petrol bombs were launched in the direction of the police – harmlessly, as it turned out. By and large, the DA marchers kept their discipline and did not initiate or respond in kind to the violence.

Eventually, the ANC turned back, responding to an appeal from the ANC’s Gauteng Provincial Secretary David Makhura. They returned to Luthuli House, where they were rewarded for their efforts with KFC and a Coke. The DA returned to Westgate Transport Hub for a pat on the head from Helen Zille. “You were all very brave,” she said.

Although it’s hard to assess the impact of the day’s events on the upcoming election, there are a few observations that stand out.

First, it’s getting harder and harder to sustain the view that “The DA is a white party”. Both the ANC and the DA managed to bring around 3,000-4,000 people on Wednesday, and both camps were overwhelmingly black. Certainly, the DA had a few white faces, whereas the ANC had almost none. But perhaps the question we should be asking instead is why the ANC has so little white support?

Second, the ANC is clearly nervous about the threat posed by the DA. Its reaction from the moment the march was announced has been defensive, and its language overly-aggressive. “They are coming armed to the teeth, with helmets, batons, shields. They have even booked places in hospitals. That can only be the actions of a party at war,” said ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu last night. He’s right, of course – except that on the day it was only the ANC cadres that came armed. Who’s preparing for war now, Jackson? The DA’s private security were present, but a dark suit and high-visibility vest does not an army make.

Third, a few words of rare praise for the South African Police Service. In 2012, when the DA marched to Cosatu House, the police were criticised for standing by and allowing the violence to unfold before them. This is why the DA were so set on getting their private security this time round – the party did not feel that the police could be trusted to protect them. Although outsmarted at times, there was a huge police presence in all the danger spots on Wednesday and officers moved quickly to keep enough distance between the two sides. In what was a very volatile situation, there were almost no direct altercations and no injuries. That’s exactly the outcome South Africans should expect from their police force in situations like this.

As the dust settles, and the participants on both sides get back on their buses for their long trips home, it’s probably the DA members who are happiest. We always knew the ANC were strong, but now the DA has proved that it too is a force to be reckoned with. 

By Simon Allison

Simon Allison covers Africa for the Daily Maverick, having cut his teeth reporting from Palestine, Somalia and revolutionary Egypt. He loves news and politics, the more convoluted the better. Despite his natural cynicism and occasionally despairing tone, he is an Afro-optimist, and can’t wait to witness and chronicle the continent’s swift development over the next few decades.

Source: Daily Maverick

Allison is Rhodes University graduate

Photo: An ANC supporter walks towards the DA while others run from a stun grenade. (Greg Nicolson/ Daily Maverick)