Johannesburg, Oct 28: The youth leader of the governing African National Congress led thousands of young South Africans through the country's economic hub and on to the capital in a protest against poverty and joblessness, seizing an issue that transcends his political troubles with his party.
At its height on Thursday, the peaceful “economic freedom march” drew close to the 5,000 people Julius Malema had predicted would protest. It was not an ambitious number, but the determination of the marchers was impressive. Many walked the eight miles (13 kilometers) from central Johannesburg to the stock exchange building in the city's north in 80-degree (27-degree Celsius) heat. They then set out for what was expected to be an all-night journey to Pretoria, more than 40 miles (60 kilometers) north.
Kgarume Maleka, a 32-year-old from the Pretoria area, took off his running shoes to rest on the street in front of the stock exchange. Maleka said the march was about ensuring the ANC kept its promises to lift the black majority out of poverty, not about the blunt-spoken Malema, who faces suspension or expulsion from the ANC because of alleged insubordination on other issues.
“At some point, we must meet the priorities that we set,” Maleka said at dusk as he prepared to continue to Pretoria. Some marchers were to be bused; others dropped out.
Malema said the protest was to demand that both the government and business do more to create jobs, build houses for the poor and provide free schools for their children. He's also calling for mines to be nationalized and land to be taken from whites who benefited from apartheid and given to poor blacks.
“Shoot the boer!” the crowd sang, a black liberation war-era chant that a South African court has ruled is racist and that the ANC ordered Malema and his followers to stop singing. “Boer,” farmer in the language of Dutch-descended South Africans, is sometimes used for all whites. Malema says the word is sung as a metaphor for oppression.
Maurice Makhubela, a 31-year-old from Soweto, said he was skeptical nationalization would be good for South Africa and questioned Malema's racial rhetoric.
But Makhubela, who trained as an accountant, said he had to do something after being out of work for three years. A quarter of South Africa's work force was unemployed even before the worldwide recession.
“We really need more of this,” Makhubela said of protests. “South Africans, the poor people of this country, they have to stand up and voice their frustration.”
Marchers were met early in the protest at the Chamber of Mines with a banner that declared “We agree with you that unemployment is too high, poverty is too high, inequality is too high.”
Later, Chamber of Mines' chief executive Bheki Sibiya later told reporters his industry group wanted to work with Malema to find solutions, including helping pay to educate black South Africans, but rejected the demands of nationalization to address the economic crisis.
The protesters' statement said they targeted the mines because of the industry's role in South Africa's history of racist economic development and said failure to concede “to these demands will lead to social instability due to continued economic exclusion of the black majority.”
ANC leaders say talk about nationalizing mines undermines investor confidence, while Malema calls them “cowards,” accusing them of being afraid to take on powerful mine bosses.
“We are confronting capital now,” Malema said during Thursday's march. “We are not afraid of capital.”
In a speech to parliament earlier this week, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said creating jobs, reducing poverty, building infrastructure and expanding the economy would be the work of many decades. In what many analysts said was a veiled reference to Malema's calls for nationalization, Gordhan said South Africa's mining industry, a key sector of the country's economy, had not benefited from a global boom in mineral prices, in part because of “uncertainty in the regulatory environment.”
Thursday's protest may have been aimed in part at showing older leaders Malema cannot be ignored. Next year, President Jacob Zuma faces an internal party leadership vote that could also determine who will be South Africa's next president. Malema helped put Zuma in power.
The main ANC grudgingly accepted Malema's plans to march after asking Malema to tone down his anti-government rhetoric.
In August, pro-Malema demonstrators burned ANC flags and ran through the streets of downtown Johannesburg holding up flaming T-shirts bearing Zuma's image. That protest was sparked by the start of a disciplinary hearing for Malema, accused of bringing the ANC into disrepute with calls for the ouster of the democratic government of neighboring Botswana.
Thursday, protester Tsholofelo Stephina Bester said the ANC must act faster to help the poor. Bester said that when she graduated from high school 10 years ago, she couldn't afford further studies to pursue her dream of becoming a social worker. She has been looking for steady work since.
“I want them not to promise without delivering,” she said of ANC leaders. “I want them to deliver.”