Mike van Graan
Mike van Graan

The DA’s Luthuli House march and our green-man-flashing democracy

Who in 1994 would have thought that in 2014 the ruling party would call upon an opposition party to abort its planned march on the ruling party’s headquarters, raising the spectre of violence if the march proceeded? But then, who would have thought that we would have an average of more than 30 protests a day or that a protestor would be killed on an almost weekly basis in 2014, or that half as many as those killed in the Sharpeville atrocity, would be massacred by police in a post-apartheid, democratic state?

There will be many back-patting occasions during this 20th year of our democracy, praising ourselves for how far we have come as a democracy and holding up our soon-to-be fifth “free and fair” elections as evidence of this. But the graves of Andries Tatane and other service-delivery protestors, the Protection of State Information Act, the hollowing out of independent institutions established to protect our constitutional democracy, the tripartite assault on The Spear, an artwork that presciently pointed to the abuse of the public purse at Nkandla — will ensure that these celebrations have a bitter taste.

Whatever one thinks of its wisdom, strategic intent, appropriateness, timing, etc, the Democratic Alliance has a right to march on Luthuli House, the headquarters of the governing African National Congress. Our current Constitution — that document which our ruling politicians have little hesitation in boasting about as among the most progressive in the world — grants and protects that right, and as the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court affirmed in overturning the initial ban on the march by the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department.

“Parties march against governments, they don’t march on other parties. This is unheard of. It is also dangerous,” said President Jacob Zuma in response to the DA’s plans to march in order to highlight their alternative plans for job creation. Zuma’s statement is, of course, nonsense. The ANC Youth League — then still under the leadership of Julius Malema — marched against the policies of its own party and for economic freedom in 2011, a march that was condemned by the SACP and IFP. Political parties have marched on the SABC, on police stations, on the Goodman Gallery, why not on another party?

Like most governments, the ANC seeks to define democracy in its self-serving image. Its disingenuous “we can’t control what our members will do if this march takes place” is ironically reminiscent of the IFP’s past ominous and indirect incitement “we can’t control what our members will do” of its supporters when the ANC went to campaign in IFP strongholds. If the ANC can control its members to prevent them from booing their president at electoral rallies, it can control its members when it comes to others marching on its headquarters. Not that they should be relied on to do so, which is why we have a police force, to protect and enforce this democratic right.

Why the ANC does not simply let the DA march, hand over its memorandum and enjoy its 15 minutes of airtime is beyond me. By threatening and seeking to intimidate the DA into calling off its march, they are not only giving additional airtime and mini-victories to the DA eg the court ruling overturning the ban on the march, but they are also showing themselves to be arrogant, intolerant, anti-democratic and potentially violent in the face of being challenged.

The decision whether to abort the march or not in the light of the intimidation reminded me of a play I did 10 years ago, in the 10th anniversary of our democracy. In Green Man Flashing, the (white) personal assistant of a senior (black) cabinet minister destined to become president after the impending 1999 election, alleges that her boss has raped her. If the allegations go public, it will have huge implications for the ruling party, for the rise of political violence in KwaZulu-Natal where the minister has played an influential role in keeping the warring IFP and ANC apart, and for job-creating foreign investment which the minister has managed to attract. (The play was staged two years before Zuma was charged with rape, but it was largely based on him as a politician and the role he played in KZN at the time).

The ruling party sends a good-cop, bad-cop delegation to the woman, offering her various incentives not to lay charges, but also making clear the dire consequences should she go through with the charges.

What should she do? There is a pandemic of violence against women, and this high-profile case would place rape high on the national agenda, but as a political activist herself, she is not keen to hurt the ruling party of which she has been a decades-old member. Then there are also her personal circumstances to consider; does she have the emotional strength to go through with a high-profile trial?

Her lawyer is convinced that she should proceed with the charges; this is not only imperative in the struggle against violence against women, it is the victim’s right to do so, and the ruling party should not be allowed expediently to take away this right. In a subsequent exchange with her lawyer, one of the delegation asks her whose right it is to cross the street if the traffic light’s green man is flashing. Clearly, it is her right, but if a taxi is coming down the road at high speed and was not going to stop despite the traffic light being red for the taxi, and it being the lawyer’s right to cross the road, would she still cross it? The point is that she could exercise her right, and get killed or seriously injured in the process, or she could withhold her right and live to fight another day, in another way.

This is essentially the choice facing the DA: should it proceed with its constitutional right to march, or should it — in the light of the intimidation of the ANC and its alliance partners — decide to call off the march? The DA has decided to proceed.

A few weeks back, I wrote a column in which I suggested that we have two kinds of democracy in our country; for want of a better description, an elite, suburban democracy characterised by elections, letters to the newspaper, court action, etc and a mass township or street democracy characterised by protests, strikes, public action, kangaroo court justice, etc. I also suggested that the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) was the only party that could and would take on the ruling alliance in both street and suburban democracy; it wouldn’t allow itself to be intimidated into calling off a march. Faced with a green man flashing moment, the EFF would cross the street (as it did in building a house next door to Zuma’s “palace of corruption” as they called it, and marched there despite the intimidation of ANC supporters). Street democracy is the democracy of the nothing-to-losers, the desperate, those who know that there may be death as the result of their actions; such battles for democracy are institutionalised in anti-apartheid struggle memory.

The DA and its primary supporters do not have such memory; their roots, style and forms of action are in suburban, parliamentary democracy. They have much to lose, and — generally — would sooner emigrate than take up the cudgels of street democracy.

But street democracy will eventually translate into electoral democracy; those protesting in the streets will vote for those who are with them in the streets, certainly at a local level, and very possibly at a national level too.

It is one thing marching under the banner of the DA as part of an election stunt though, and quite another to be integrated into the daily struggles and street democracy protests of ordinary people, the masses of voters seeking parliamentary power. It is here that the DA faces its strongest growth challenges, challenges that will not be overcome by appointing any number of suburban black faces to its leadership.

In the meantime, while we celebrate 20 years of democracy by pointing to five “suburban” free-and-fair elections, it is in the streets that the red lights are flashing for our democracy.

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