Malema and the youth’s dignified march to hope

2011-10-29 17:01

By 11pm on Thursday, it wasn’t funny any more. Those still walking – about 200 grimly determined and mostly young men spread out in clumps in the dark across a kilometres-long stretch of Old Pretoria Road – were feeling the pain.

Even revolutionary fervour couldn’t put a spring in your step after 30km on foot with too little water, way too little food and often ridiculously unsuitable footwear.

The closest thing to humour were jokes about toe amputations and terrible puns about being foot-soldiers.
Yet there was a tangible sense of achievement, of being part of something grand and historic.

When ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema announced that morning – standing on the back of a truck in Beyers Naudé Square – that the march would go all the way to Pretoria, many among the thousands gathered there had thought that he was speaking figuratively.

When he reiterated that in front of the Joburg Stock Exchange (JSE) in Sandton, a full afternoon’s walk later he was met with incredulity and even some mutinous muttering. But the faithful put their shoes back on, stood up on their aching legs and marched past the hotels, office buildings and housing complexes, out of the city and onward to what they considered to be glory.

For ordinary league members, those who hold no office or position, the march represented a way to be involved in forcing economic change in South Africa, to help bring about a more equitable system in which they will not remain unemployed, and be without houses and electricity.

This, after all, wasn’t just a demonstration. This was a march to the Union Buildings, the very seat of government, that would put the entire country on notice.

Backing that up with a show of determination as unambiguous as walking for 60km surely has to change things. Somehow.

For those a little way up the food chain, such as branch leaders, it was a slightly different show of strength.

Said one: “We put these people in government, then they don’t do what they’re supposed to. When we push (President Jacob) Zuma out, he’ll know it started with this march. We’re showing him he can’t win this fight.”

The great trudge probably won’t change Zuma’s mind about seeking re-election at next year’s ANC elective conference. And it probably won’t convince the Chamber of Mines to support nationalisation, or JSE-listed companies to share their wealth.

But even on Thursday night, there was a change of attitude towards the league among those who aren’t traditionally big fans.

Small groups of residents from middle-class suburbs that lined the route, and social media networks’ chattering classes, expressed their ad­mi­r­a­tion for the discipline of the marchers. Sometimes for Malema by name.

Many talked about grit and determination, or likened the march to the Occupy Wall Street movement. At the heart of that sentiment was the discipline with which the trek was pulled off.

Not even the police had anticipated that, judging by the numbers: a water cannon, a helicopter, scores of vehicles and hundreds of riot-ready cops didn’t speak of confidence that the league would control the crowd.

Joburg’s last run-in with Malema fans, at the start of his ANC disciplinary hearing, more than justified such preparations, as had the aggressive mood in the morning. Even those involved weren’t overly confident.

“You must be careful. There are many people here who’ll beat you up,” a marshall told one journalist manhandled by a bodyguard.

As the day wore on with no incidents of violence and no sign the march would turn into a mob, those expectations receded. Instead we saw the league as Malema often describes it: militant but restrained, struggling with dignity for what it believes in.

It came as a surprise and forced some re-evaluation. In that respect, at least, the league can claim victory.

If the point of the protest was to reach those who would otherwise not listen, the march could be said to have been a success.

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