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By BALDWIN NDABA, GCINA NTSALUBA, YUSUF OMAR, MURRAY WILLIAMS AND ANNA BISARO
Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille and her parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko, were whisked to safety on Tuesday after Cosatu supporters pelted them with rocks during the DA’s youth-subsidy march in Joburg.
Scores of people suffered serious injuries during bloody clashes between DA and Cosatu supporters. Emergency services ER24 reported treating 12 patients in Beyers Naudé Square.
The DA marchers were on the verge of handing a memorandum to Cosatu at its headquarters in Jorissen Street at 11.45am to ask the labour federation to abandon its call against youth subsidies, when they were met by an angry crowd.
Thousands, wielding rocks and wearing red T-shirts and black berets, stormed down the road – led by a man shocking bystanders with a Taser gun – and confronted more than 2 000 blue-shirted DA supporters carrying vuvuzelas.
Cosatu-affiliated union members, ANC-aligned students and youth organisation members lined up against Zille and Mazibuko as they rebuked the labour federation for having allegedly prevented President Jacob Zuma from rolling out youth subsidies to unemployed young people.
A police Nyala and a handful of policemen with shotguns separated the two groups by about 5 metres.
Zille stood on a DA truck surrounded by security and delivered a speech in isiXhosa and English. “The DA stands on the side of the poor,” she said. “No one elected Cosatu into government. The DA was elected by you. You put us here.”
As she was speaking, Cosatu supporters began to sing “Voertsek, Zille, Voertsek!”
Some Cosatu members carried posters that read: “HIV/Aids is better than DA”, “DA stands for Defend Apartheid” and “Youth Subsidies = Youth Exploitation”.
The stand-off continued for a few minutes. Then the sky began raining rocks, pieces of cement and tar, from both sides.
“Do not retaliate,” shouted DA leaders over the loudspeaker as a rock smashed through their truck’s front window.
The DA waited for the police, who did not arrive, before retreating into De Beer Street. The Cosatu supporters ran down a parallel road. The two groups met again on Stiemens Street.
At 12.40pm, police back-up arrived and threw two stun grenades into the crowd. Teargas was sprayed and, by 12.50pm, the police had regained control of Braamfontein. Helicopters flew overhead and a water cannon split the Cosatu group in half.
At 1.30pm, the DA’s supporters scrambled over Nelson Mandela Bridge and back to Beyers Naudé Square, many of them limping, several with blood-soaked bandannas, and several rubbing their eyes and coughing from the gas. Zille was nowhere to be seen.
A man whose eye was gashed by a rock shouted: “I took off work today to be pelted. We came here in peace but they (Cosatu) wanted a fight.”
DA provincial leader John Moodey helped carry the wounded across the bridge. “We are surprised this happened… we thought the police would prevent Cosatu from holding an illegal gathering,” he said. “This is a taste of things to come… They will do anything to hold on to power. Even violence.”
Moodey, calling the incident “a watershed for South African politics”, said he equated what happened to the 1976 uprisings. “This will start to happen more and more as the ANC starts to lose power.”
The violence was absolutely deplorable,” said Zille in a statement later. “I think we were on Jorissen (Street) when I saw the first rock hailing down on us, huge rocks came at us. It was completely uncalled for. We were peaceful, and when Cosatu threw rock at us, we told our supporters not to retaliate.”
On uesday night, Zille, whose speech was cut short by the pandemonium, slammed Cosatu for being “very selective” about constitutional rights.
She told the Cape Argus: “Cosatu has been exposed for the type of organisation it is – they will not tolerate anybody else doing what they claim the right to do every day. They’re very selective about constitutional rights.
“We will definitely lay charges, and continue to protest as we see fit, and not as Cosatu sees fit. We had the legal march.
“They had the illegal march.”
Zille added: “We will do more and more mass mobilisation, because we are now a mass party. In the last election one out of every four voters voted for us, and we will continue giving those voters a voice – whether or not Cosatu likes it or not. We do not need their permission to exercise our constitutional rights.”
The clash had earlier seemed imminent at Cosatu House, where the message to the labour federation supporters was clear – teach Zille and her supporters a lesson.
Cosatu had become aware of the march two weeks ago, and its affiliated members had organised their supporters to resist Zille and her supporters.
Cosatu provincial chairman Phutas Tseki blamed the DA for the violence, saying they had arrived in Braamfontein “with a truckload of rocks to attack Cosatu members. The DA got a clear message. Cosatu members were defending their institution – Cosatu House – and their leaders,” he said.
Tseki said two people at Cosatu House – including ANC Youth League NEC member Thabo Kupa – had suffered serious injuries.
Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said problems had been expected, but added that “ violence is completely unacceptable from whatever side”.
DA spokesman Mmusi Maimane said: “We will be laying criminal charges against Cosatu’s leadership for intimidation, inciting violence and holding an illegal gathering.”
Police spokesman Lieutenant Tshisikhawe Ndou said a case of holding an illegal gathering against Cosatu had been opened as it had not submitted an application to march. Cosatu issued a statement and what it termed a “counter-memorandum” to the DA on Tuesday afternoon after violence broke out.
Cosatu spokesman Patrick Craven said the DA was serving the interests of big business and capitalism based on the false premise that the cause of high unemployment was the high cost of labour and restrictive labour laws that made it too hard to fire workers.
He said there had been injuries on both sides, but most unionists had conducted themselves with “exemplary discipline and restraint” despite provocation.
After the march, Cosatu congratulated and thanking its members “who rallied in their hundreds… in response to the DA’s planned march to the workers’ citadel”.
“In the event the DA did not even reach their destination, and beat an ignominious retreat when confronted by the massed ranks of the workers.
“Regrettably there was some confusion among the demonstrators as to precisely where the DA’s memorandum would be handed over to those who had been nominated to receive it.
“This led to a confrontation in the streets of Braamfontein, during which there were a few incidents of stone-throwing by individuals, which led to a number of injuries by people on both sides of the confrontation. We wish them all a full recovery,” Cosatu said.
The ANC, which had warned the DA not to go ahead with the march, said it was a publicity stunt by the DA to draw attention to itself.
ANC spokesman Keith Khoza said the march had achieved nothing besides provocation and fuelling violence among members of the tripartite alliance – Cosatu, the SACP and the ANC.
Khoza said the DA should have addressed the issue through the relevant parliamentary structures instead of trying to storm through Cosatu headquarters.
DA parliamentary leader Mazibuko told the crowd they were on the same side, fighting for economic freedom.
“I felt sad that South Africans, who fought for tolerance and freedom, couldn’t exercise those rights today,” she said.
The Star, Cape Argus