The opposition Democratic Alliance's march to Luthuli House, in which they hoped to raise the issue of unemployment, was planned for Tuesday morning, but rescheduled due to one of the more spectacular derailments in modern South African political history. Instead, those who bothered to show up were treated to a dry run of the ANC's anti-march machinery. It is, in a word, loud.
In many respects, Tuesday morning summed up the travails of a die-hard ANC supporter: always waiting for something, and nothing ever comes. In this case, absent was a phalanx of blue T-shirts and blue banners, worn and carried by Helen Zille’s remaining faithful. One could almost imagine the DA legions walking up Johannesburg’s Sauer Street toward the Brutalist concrete high rise, all set to exercise their constitutional right to freedom of speech. According to the DA press people, the march has been rescheduled for next Wednesday. If it gets nasty, as it is likely to, Zille and her henchfolk will be spirited back to Rosebank, while the rank and file duke it out in the streets. At least during the infamous Marriage, no DA member took an actual bottle to the head. Young people do dumb things, and they will do dumb things when the DA arrives at Luthuli House.
A thought the DA may want to consider: Just because it’s a constitutional right to eat ice cream for breakfast every morning, doesn’t make it a smart lifestyle choice.
Anyway, the anti-march non-rally rally kicked off around 9am, with a few hundred chanting faithful waving the usual ANC banners, wearing the usual T-shirts, my favourite of which read “Decade of the Cadre” (I’ll say). I was also sorry to note the slow creep of red berets intermingling with the standard ANC design language, and while I understand that the SACP has been sporting red since Paleolithic times, it very simply ruins the green, black, and yellow colour palette, an observation that serves as my final fashion criticism of the election cycle, hopefully.
Shortly after arriving, I fell into chatting with an SACP member named Zweli.
“So what’s the deal here this morning?” I asked, after showing him an email of the press release that promised, in lieu of the non-march rally, an ANC “blitzing campaign” in the Johannesburg CBD. He looked confused.
“We’re here to protect the revolutionary house,” he told me.
“But hasn’t the DA march been cancelled?”
He smiled. “They seem to cancel many things. But we are here in case they are coming.”
By this point, orange cones and plastic barriers had been randomly placed along Sauer Street, shutting down traffic for those on their way to the very work the DA has pledged to create so much more of. When it comes to the ruling party, however, you’re either in the dancing circle or you’re not, and those in their vehicles were not.
The ANC’s campaign party truck was parked on President Street, under the gaze of friezes depicting Goethe, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dante, and friends. These concrete literary giants, forming a row on the northern wall of the library building under which the party truck was installed, seemed to regard what was happening below with recognition, as if they were thinking, yup, there was lots of this crap in my day, too.
On my way to a prime viewing spot, I encountered the provincial treasurer of the students’ union, and we fought through the crowd together. He wore boxing gloves and a slingshot around his neck. I told him that he looked ready.
“We are ready,” he said. “We are ready.”
Jessie Duarte, the ANC’s deputy secretary general, provided the warm up act, if that’s the proper way to describe it. She addressed, as everyone seems to be these days, “the youth.”
“Helen Zille’s husband is a lecturer at UCT,” she reminded the faithful. “But he doesn’t want you there. The ANC is saying, ‘not on our watch!’”
The crowd had filled out with a representative ensemble of those unable to find work in this country: old women, and young men in their prime. “Today,” Duarte promised them, “we are not going to waste this day. We heard in the news that the visitors are not ready. If they come next week, next year, we will be ready. Now, what we are going to do is political education,” which means handing out pamphlets and dog-eared copies of the manifesto to taxi drivers and passersby.
God help Johannesburg.
Duarte went on to blame the current anti-march non-rally rally on “Stan Greenman or Stan Greenberg or something”, a presumed reference to the American pollster who has advised Bill Clinton, Monsanto and, wait for it, the ANC. He ditched the ruling party in 1999 because Thabo Mbeki’s stance on Aids horrified him, and last year agreed to provide his services to the DA, in no small part because of a longstanding friendship with the party’s national chairperson, James Wilmot. Greenberg has described his role as “that of an outside adviser to the existing local DA polling operation”, and he’s been bullish on the DA’s polling numbers.
The DepSecGen, however, saw a conspiracy. “[Greenberg] says, ‘Go to the ANC, because they will react violently.’ But this is not America. This is South Africa,” implying that the incoming DA marchers, should they ever arrive, would be handed cups of Oros and reams of ANC literature, and not be provoked into a street war by the DA’s constitutional right.
Later, I got talking with two younger comrades, one wearing a black beret and a T-shirt with an image of an AK-47. Mpumi told me that he and his comrades would have stopped the march should it have occurred. “This is our house,” he said, pointing to the Brutalist concrete façade. “This is our heart. The correct place to go with their grievances is the Union Building. Go to Pretoria. Don’t come here.”
I asked him about the DA’s septimana horribilis, presumably all the fault of Stan Greenberg. “It was empty, there’s nothing to talk about. It’s a sign of desperation to get black voters. It’s a rent-a-black mentality. They want a BEE president. But let’s be honest, Mamphela Ramphele is not really that black”.
By now, the rotund secretary general Gwede Mantashe had been hoisted onto the party truck. He held aloft the storied manifesto; he addressed “the youth”.
“There has been a divorce,” said Mantashe. “Because the divorce was complicated, they did not arrive. They wanted to storm the Bastille. Very ambitious. Very ambitious.”
Not really. The DA is happy to gamble with the safety of their supporters; so too is the ANC. It’s just people. Lots where they came from. But what would be welcome, at least as far as those wearing blue-T-shirts are concerned, is the official opposition pulling back from all the stunt work and starting to campaign for the 2014 general elections like a sophisticated political party, and not like COPE’s nursery school wing. At this point, the DA doesn’t need provocative marches. They just need a week that doesn’t make them look like schmucks.