The leader of the Democratic Alliance may still be proved correct when she trumpeted that the party’s march on Cosatu House “will come to be seen as a turning point in South Africa”.

In Johannesburg last Tuesday, the march led by Helen Zille and MP Lindiwe Mazibuko escalated into a violent street fight after members of Cosatu, wielding sticks and at least one Taser, blocked their way before pelting the marchers with bricks and stones. The DA returned some of the missiles. Fortunately, nobody was killed though murder was attempted.

Journalist Nickolaus Bauer in the thick of the action tweeted, together with a photo of his bloodied face, “Hit on head with rock, sucking on tear gas, running away from buffoons on both side of political spectrum.” A large man, he made for an easy target.

Criminal charges have been laid against Cosatu and questions are being asked of the police for failing to protect a legal march.

Thankfully far more ink than blood was spilt on last week’s clash. But commentators debating the rights and wrongs, whether the battered victims got their just deserts and who cast the first stone, have by and large missed the significance of the event.

As news and television coverage of the march unfolded, South Africans of all hues were jolted out of their usual, unchallenged, political typecasting.

Many older DA supporters found their middle class sensibilities offended, not only by the violence, but by the spectacle of mollycoddled DA youths stooping to street politics and engaged in an unseemly brawl.

Long pigeonholed as a party for whites, for many black voters the face of the DA had suddenly transformed into a sea of young, black-skinned South Africans wearing blue T-shirts and not white collars.

Here was the DA, a party usually associated with asking irksome questions in Parliament, mounting procedural and technical challenges to government in the law courts, imploring the president to engage with it in televised debates, out marching on the street.

Here were youthful DA members, better known for such civic-minded campaigns as switching off lights for Earth Hour and cutting down dense foliage in high crime spots, throwing rocks.

If the DA leadership ever bled for a cause, it was usually in sterile conditions via the median cubital vein at a blood donation centre.

What the march did was show in bald terms the ugly face of growing political intolerance. One should pause here to acknowledge the campaigners for various opposition parties who have been physically attacked and even killed in election-related violence in the past. Cosatu disgraced their red shirts by behaving like Blackshirts. Subsequent attempts by some in its leadership to cast these actions as a heroic defence of the workers’ citadel are as risible as they are ignominious.

After garnering popular support for its stance on e-tolling, corruption, our undemocratic neighbours, and the secrecy Bill, Cosatu’s cowardly rhetoric, far more than its brick-throwing, has disappointed a broad swathe of South Africans.

If this was all a deliberate tactic on the part of the DA, it has paid off. The DA is the winner all round. It gained credibility, at the very least sympathy, when previously it had little of either. It put the youth wage issue firmly on the table and not lost in the malaise that is tripartite and Nedlac politics. It exposed the rifts in the ruling alliance (the DA and the ANC are closer on many economic issues than either feels comfortable acknowledging). And, for once, it put Cosatu on the defensive.

It is hard to see what Cosatu gained. It behaved illegally. It came out looking like a deeply hypocritical bully. The message it sent to the unemployed was: there is only one solution to your problem and that is ours, and if you disagree we will crush you.

Stoning unemployed black youths hardly comes off as pro-poor. Cosatu’s attempt to label the marchers as “sellouts” doesn’t stick half as well as the image of the battered face of a young, black female Wits student who nearly lost her eye.

Some commentators have cast the DA as agent provocateur, but if Julius Malema could lead an “economic freedom” march to the Chamber of Mines and the Johannesburg Stock Exchange who are not in government, why shouldn’t the Democratic Alliance march on the centre of labour union power it blames for growing, record youth unemployment?

No one can say for sure if the youth wage subsidy will work, but this is no way to counter the argument. The ANC Youth League is against the subsidy (probably for no reason other than that the DA supports it, and maybe because the Zuma-led mother body of the ANC does too). Meanwhile, the National Youth Development Agency (which is stacked with sinecure positions for the very same Youth League) supports it.

This lends weight to the belief that the dispute is about partisan politics and little to do with rationale. The unemployed are increasingly unsure as to whether union officials paying themselves six-digit salaries have their best interests at heart. And the DA knows this.

The march was only ostensibly about the youth wage subsidy; it was really about the next election, in which the DA is determined, via coalition, to take Gauteng. The subsidy has come in as a handy wedge between the unemployed masses and the unionised employed.

It is a puzzle why Cosatu takes such absolute stances and risks appearing unreasonable and implacable. Why not introduce measures to curb the undesirable side effects of a youth wage subsidy (and there are several) by putting forward measures? Would it not be better for everyone to fix what is wrong with labour brokering rather than banning it outright? Many in precarious employment who dislike labour brokers nevertheless see Cosatu’s ban likely to render them unemployed.

And why did more sober heads not prevail around countering the march?

It comes down to symbolism. By daring to march, the DA trespassed on sacred turf.

Ever since six farm workers protested against a cut of 10 shillings in their wages in the village of Tolpuddle in Dorset, England in 1834, the march has been central to the labour movement.

In 1903, labour activist Mary Harris “Mother” Jones organised child workers to march past their factory bosses holding up their mangled hands and amputated fingers.

In 1913, Gandhi led a march of thousands from the coalfields of Natal into the Transvaal to protest the £3 tax and actually achieved its abolition. Gandhi went on of course to stage the great Salt March in India and to inspire Martin Luther King’s civil rights march on Washington, who in turn inspired many South African protest marches. The march came to be a major political tool in the arsenal against apartheid. The title of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom deliberately conjures Mao Zedong’s 1934 Long March.

From the 1956 Women’s March and Tsietsi Mashinini’s June 1976 schoolchildren’s march to the first legal and government-approved anti-apartheid march in September 1989, the protest march has been the property of the masses.

For the DA to march was simply intolerable to the hotheads in Cosatu. The DA of all parties was suddenly out in force apparently with grassroots support. The labour movement, with good reason, panicked.

The politics of the old order which depend on a political dichotomy of left and right wing have become thoroughly scrambled. As a substitute, first the ANC and now Cosatu, have increasingly employed race.

The DA committed a symbolic act that demonstrated, to the consternation of the liberation parties and the labour movement, that their hold over the unemployed masses and the so-called “born-frees” is far from set in stone as they’d like to believe.

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  • Brent Meersman is a writer based in Cape Town. He is co-editor of and a columnist for This is Africa. His most recent novel is Five Lives at Noon (2013), and his previous novels are Primary Coloured (Human & Rouseau, 2007) and Reports Before Daybreak (Umuzi-Random House, 2011). He has been writing for the Mail & Guardian since 2003. Follow him on Twitter or visit


Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman is a writer based in Cape Town. He is co-editor of and a columnist for This is Africa. His most recent novel is Five Lives at Noon (2013), and his previous novels are Primary...

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