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BALDWIN NDABA, YUSUF OMAR and ANNA BISARO
DEMOCRATIC Alliance leader Helen Zille and her parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko, were whisked to safety yesterday 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 Tazer 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 Xhosa 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.
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.”
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.
“Why are they afraid of a peaceful march?” a DA councillor in the City of Joburg, Cameron Mackenzie, asked. “They are afraid of our message. It’s disgusting what happened here. It’s disgusting.”
DA councillor for Sunninghill, Annette Deppe, said the arrival of an opposition force proved that the DA had made its point. “We stand by our youth who want jobs, skills and sustainability. They (ANC) only want jobs for their friends and family.”
“We certainly placed firmly into the public debate the importance of the youth wage subsidy,” added Zille. “There is R5 billion in the budget for the youth wage subsidy, and we want to free up that money.”
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 national 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 an illegal gathering against Cosatu had been opened as the organisation had not submitted an application to march.