The opposition was looking for trouble, so there should be no surprise that stones flew and heads were cracked. Any moron should realise that a march on union headquarters by a despised rival would spark violence.

That’s the response of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) to the violence their supporters unleashed upon, mainly black, Democratic Alliance (DA) marchers.

The DA march was no doubt provocative. And while it’s the essence of democracy to speak without fear of retribution — no matter how provoked others might feel — the wisdom as to how, when and where to speak, can be the difference between a live and a dead democrat.

DA leaders surely must have known that in this particular scenario there was a high likelihood of physical confrontation. They then took a completely legal but somewhat cynical decision: that the likelihood of a few bumps and bruises was outweighed by the opportunity to score some telling political points.

Firstly, the DA wants to drive home that Cosatu and SACP, for all their lip service to democracy, are essentially autocratic. A street mugging at the hands of Cosatu thugs isn’t actually on its own irrefutable evidence — our democracy, after all, is still raw in places, seeping blood at the margins — but the subsequent bellicose response from alliance leaders lends support to the DA’s contention.

Cosatu’s Patrick Craven condemned the “regrettable” violence but then cynically places it the context of the “justified anger” of those who “rallied” to thwart the DA march to the “workers’ citadel”.

The courage of Cosatu’s soldiers was such that the DA “did not even reach their destination and beat an ignominious retreat when confronted by the massed ranks”. He lauds “the exemplary discipline and restraint” of most of the workers, “despite the provocative nature of the [DA]”.

The various unions and youth organisations under the governing alliance’s umbrella issued a statement in much the same vein. This exults that “the enemy is on the run, the enemy is naked” and “salutes” the youth for “occupying” the streets against “the provocative and deceitful failed march by agents of imperialism and … [the] fascist and racist” DA.

In short, the message to the DA is: ‘Sorry we hurt you, but you made us do it.’ This is nothing but a political variation of the blame shifting used by sociopathic wife-beaters to exculpate themselves.

Secondly, the DA wants to challenge the alliance’s stance that it is the sole voice of SA’s underclass. The DA is staking its street cred, showing that it, too, can march and toyi-toyi on behalf of the excluded. It hopes thus to underscore a reality threatening to the alliance: that some issues, one of which is job creation, workers, peasants and the unemployed are at odds with one another.

The DA, ironically along with many in government, believes that a proposed youth wage subsidy will enable low-skilled young people — a huge, growing and increasingly restless segment of the population — to enter the workforce and eventually acquire marketable skills and graduate to higher paying jobs. Cosatu, in contrast, rejects the subsidy. It is wedded to the ‘living wage’ concept and would rather have no jobs than low paying jobs, at least in part to protect its eroding membership base.

Libertarian purists in the DA who won’t acknowledge that rights have to be exercised with some modicum of common sense might be infuriating and opportunistic, but they have exposed rank hypocrisy on the part of the left. Cosatu marches against corruption; it marches against the media secrecy Bill; and it marches against authoritarian governments in Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

Yet it is proudly, violently intolerant of anyone who dares march against the sacred cows it idolises. Let’s cut through Cosatu’s barbed coils of military metaphors and remember that the DA marched not to sack the ‘worker citadel’, merely to present a memorandum at its gates.


  • This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.


William Saunderson-Meyer

This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day....

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