Cape Town - Loud bangs echoed through the city, sending marchers ducking and running for side roads and alleyways. As quickly as it began, an illegal service delivery protest that threatened to charge through the CBD was ended in a flurry of blue lights, revving motors and exploding stun grenades.
With scenes of the October protests still fresh in the minds of Capetonians, when Ses’khona People’s Rights Movement marchers tore through St George’s Mall, looting shops and stalls, the pressure was on police, traffic and city officials to contain any potential sequel on Thursday.
The march was declared illegal after the city denied the Ses’khona People’s Rights Movement a permit to protest in the city this week. The march was intended to draw attention to a lack of suitable housing.
It started at about 10am as hundreds of marchers gathered at the Woodstock railway station.
As the protesters began to filter from carriages, urgent e-mails were sent out to local businesses, warning their employees to shut up shop and stay indoors.
“Take caution and avoid protesters,” read an e-mail sent to businesses in the city centre.
On St George’s Mall, where most street vendors lost almost everything in October, stalls were folded up and carried away in a clatter and shuffle of metal poles and cardboard boxes.
But one vendor, who wanted to remain anonymous, told the Cape Argus he refused to give in to the protesters – even though he lost R20 000 to looters last year. “It’s the police’s job to protect me, so why must I move?”
While the city was ready for a potential siege, protesters had already been halted in their tracks. As they emerged from Woodstock station they were met by a fleet of police cars and riot vans.
A stand-off ensued as officers demanded the protesters turn back.
The deadlock was eventually broken when police used a water cannon and a trio of stun grenades to disperse the crowds.
But by this time some marchers had already moved away from the main group and were heading into town along Nelson Mandela Boulevard.
Vuyokazi Ncinane, one of the organisers, said the intention was to stage a peaceful march. But, as the protesters moved down the road, the dry grass of an empty field in District Six was set alight.
There were also reports of marchers looting shops and stalls.
“We were provoked by the police,” said Ncinane defending her protesters’ actions.
The black smoke billowed behind them as they sang and danced, almost chasing the traffic in front of them.
Once in the city, the protesters moved through the Grand Parade and then towards Adderley Street.
The intention was to reach the provincial legislature, but when they charged towards St George’s Mall their chants were drowned out by sirens as police rushed to intercept them.
Two stun grenades saw the crowd thin out to just a band of around 50 stragglers, who stood toyi-toying on the corner of Wale and Adderley streets. But when an officer advanced on the group, threatening to throw another grenade, the last protesters scattered.
Police using vehicles, ranging from vans to motorcycles and quad bikes, forcefully herded the protesters back to the Cape Town railway station.
Ncinane said the way they were treated by police was unacceptable.
“We left because of the way they were dealing with us. It was unsafe, it was dangerous. They could’ve hurt us… We came here to conduct a peaceful protest and they came out to provoke us.”
The City of Cape Town declined a permit for the march after police indicated it could result in disruptions to traffic, injuries to people and damage to property.
Ncinane said: “What they did is illegal. We want an answer from Helen Zille on our demands for more land. It was the same question that was asked in October and still we are sitting without answers.
“Until we hear from her, we will protest every day.” Ncinane said Ses’khona was operating under a new leadership.
She claimed the movement’s leaders, Loyiso Nkohla and Andile Lili, who have been disciplined by the ANC for conducting marches without the party’s consent and are prohibited from taking part in illegal marches as part of their bail conditions relating to a pending case against them, had played no part in the organisation of Thursday’s march.
Police arrested 12 protesters in connection with the march. Police spokesman Captain FC van Wyk said they would appear at the Cape Town Magistrate’s Court on charges relating to the Illegal Gatherings Act.
In contrast to October’s chaotic march, where storefronts were smashed, bins overturned and trees uprooted and ripped apart, Van Wyk said there wasn’t any damage to property during the short-lived march.
Metro EMS said no injuries were reported.
“Police will remain in the Cape Town CBD and surrounding areas to ensure the safety of the community,” said Van Wyk.
“The situation is calm and under control at this stage.”
Mayoral committee member for safety and security, JP Smith, said authorities had managed the situation well. But the real answer to battling Ses’khona’s illegal and often violent protests would be to prosecute its members.
“There have not been any successful prosecutions yet, it is something we are working on.
“Once we get a few of these guys to pay over the taxpayers’ money we have had to use to repair the damage they have caused, then the next guy might think twice about doing the same thing.”
He said the city would continue to deny Ses’khona’s requests to march in the city.
“We will not give hooligans with a bad track record a permit. It makes us liable and puts people in danger.”