The yoof are on the march. Again. It does not make for a pretty picture, although it is a politically fascinating one.
The issues vary from train fares at the micro level to unemployment, rural deprivation and racism at the macro. The strategy, however, is uniform, calculated and well tested in South Africa. It is the deployment of chanting placard-wielding youngsters, most of them black, to exert maximum public pressure on the target and extract maximum embarrassment.
A couple of weeks ago the protest was at Johannesburg’s Park Station against ever-higher fares for deteriorating services. There, in tactics that recall the old regime’s stupid heavy handedness, a small group of protestors trying to talk to commuters was forcibly evicted by Metrorail security because they ‘did not have a permit to hold a political rally’.
Last week the march was in Delmas against white racism and the failure of the police to deal with rural crime. It was sparked by the ‘uncalled for … racial slurs’ of earlier rightwing white protestors who had proclaimed the murders of a five-month old baby and his caregiver to be ‘racially motivated’ by ‘barbarians’.
This week hundreds of young protestors singing liberation songs marched in Pietermaritzburg for the ‘immediate’ introduction of the youth wage subsidy and ‘jobs today’.
These marches illustrate interesting contradictions in our political terrain. They were organised not by radical groupings but by the opposition Democratic Alliance, cannily pressuring government on issues where there is widespread resentment over failed delivery, as well as internal policy divisions within the ruling alliance.
The cheeky destination in the Pietermaritzburg march was the office of KwaZulu-Natal premier Zweli Mkhize. The premier, along with most of President Jacob Zuma’s cabinet, supports some form of youth wage subsidy. But the African National Congress’ ally, the Congress of SA Trade Unions, is implacably opposed to a subsidy and has mobilised hard against this particular policy of the government it is part of.
Surely only in the Wonderland of SA politics will one find the official opposition marching in favour of a government policy while an important chunk of that selfsame government marches against it?
When the DA last month dared to march on trade union headquarters in Johannesburg to deliver a memorandum in support of the wage subsidy, it was met with violence from Cosatu members. Heads were broken, amid police teargas and rubber bullets.
The Pietermaritzburg march, said a DA spokesperson, gave Mkhize the ‘opportunity to put politics aside and back the [DA-controlled] Western Cape’s call for provinces with the political will to roll out the subsidy, to be given a share of Treasury’s budgeted R5bn’.
The DA does know that this is not going to happen. In the face of opposition to the subsidy from Zuma’s critical allies, in a year when the president is lobbying for a second term, it makes no sense to tackle divisive issues and alienate crucial votes . But what fun it is for the DA to exacerbate those cracks.
The R5bn set aside for the subsidy has been available since 2010, but Zuma will ensure that the issue will remain parked for ‘discussion’ at the National Economic and Labour Development Council until the Mangaung conference has been safely hurdled. Or not, as the case might be.
Lindiwe Mazibuko, the DA’s young, black parliamentary leader, has led many of the marches. The racial complexion of the participants has overwhelmingly been black.
The DA’s message is that the ANC does not hold a divinely ordained patent on black aspirations or how they are to be realised. Nor does the ANC and its allies own the streets.
The DA has always bumped its head against the inaccurate perception that it is a ‘white’ party. It is, in fact, statistically, a party of minorities: whites, Indians and coloureds, as well as slowly increasing numbers of middle-class Africans.
Now the DA is looking towards long-term electoral growth by pitching for street cred among the African unemployed. That’s not a constituency that the governing alliance will tolerantly surrender. If the DA shows signs of making headway, expect more cracked skulls.