United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa made a few headlines this week when he said South Africa can’t just keep marching against Jacob Zuma forever, and marches won’t be enough to create change.
Stop marching, said some of the headlines, though I don’t think that’s all he meant.
He wants everyone to get together for a big conversation, or seminar, or whatever – though I’m not sure how that’s going to change much either.
What we have to keep in mind is that all this anger against Zuma presents an ideal opportunity for opposition politicians to take centre stage, and none of them wants to be upstaged by any of the others. Each of them wants to seem like he or she in particular is doing the most to help rid us of our cheerful kleptocrat-in-chief, but not even they know if they have the faintest glimmer of a chance at success.
Still, the opposition has to seem like it’s doing something (“We’re in crisis, dammit!”), and there’s nothing a politician – particularly an opposition MP on recess – likes more than a good old protest march to get the juices flowing.
It seems to have convinced many of us, though, especially people overseas, that the winds of change are blowing.
It may in fact be more of a light breeze. But “the light breeze of minor but steady adjustment to the political balance of power over a period of time is coming” doesn’t make for a great headline.
One of my colleagues wasn’t particularly impressed with Holomisa’s comments for her own reasons, because she told me such statements are not helpful. She said she saw the marches as a sign of hope and creating an awareness that the “people” have had enough. To her, by ending the marches or losing enthusiasm for them, “momentum” would be lost and the country would just go back to its same old apathy of moaning about the president and feeling powerless to do anything about him.
The problem, though, is Holomisa may have a point. Zuma has barely noticed these marches and cares even less about them. There’s obviously discomfort about it in the ANC, but let’s keep in mind that this is a governing party that’s very used to being marched against. There are regular service delivery protests in the areas the ANC governs, often organised by the very same people who voted for the ANC, and the ANC doesn’t appear to care all that much about even them.
No one has marched and protested in general more, or more terrifyingly, than the people of Vuwani, and they have nothing to show for it.
The ANC feels secure in its assumption that, come next election, the same people burning tyres against that councillor are likely to vote for the councillor and/or his or her party again, or they’ll vote for the next person smiling on a background of bright yellow on an election poster.
The ANC probably believes they could put a picture of Spongebob Squarepants on their posters in 2019 and still win the election.
Why should they care about people who turn up in marches and, by and large, don’t look like ANC voters?
At last week’s National Day of Action that brought together most of the opposition parties, all those EFF berets made the tens of thousands of people at the Union Buildings look like a sea of red, although there was the occasional wave frond of blue. See for yourself:
We’ve seen giant EFF gatherings before. Malema and co are good at mobilising their supporters, but that’s not enough to make the ANC truly fear that the millions of voters they’ve always relied upon will abandon them for the EFF, DA, UDM or any of the numberless other parties in this country.
Only a gigantic march by the genuine rank and file of the ANC against Zuma may be enough to spook the ruling party into action. They could also merely then say, “Well, look, he’s going anyway in 2019.” It suits the ANC to make this all about Zuma, when the rot obviously runs far deeper.
It’s possible that sticking with Zuma for the next two years will cause the ANC to fall, but like their Zanu-PF counterparts in Zimbabwe, the rural vote remains critical for them. Urbanised people reading their newspapers and getting fancy ideas about good governance are not the people Zuma bothers about. There just aren’t enough of them, or so they think.
Last year about 1.5 million South Koreans turned out for one protest alone. There has never been a march of even half a million people in South Africa. If the country could unite in a similar way, our marches might have more of an impact. The various marches of April 7 were probably the most diverse and united we have seen in South African history, but they were still far from enough.
And short of hundreds of people being massacred by the police in these marches, they probably will continue to not be enough.
However, I have to agree with my colleague that the marches have been and will continue to be important for raising and maintaining the awareness that many of the “people” are angry and disillusioned. Over time, this may slowly change the political climate, but the ANC only truly cares about winning elections and they still believe they are invincible. And things like the “Freedom Movement” launched today may also help to turn the tide.
All this turmoil is important, and is part of the grand unfolding (or unravelling) of history. But it’s the ballot boxes that truly matter and will make all the difference (or none at all).
We still face a long march (and many more smaller marches) to get to those little cubicles and their millions of crosses we will all have to bear.