People march during the ‘ Zuma Must Fall’  protest in Cape Town on December 16 last year.  Picture: THE TIMES
People march during the ‘ Zuma Must Fall’ protest in Cape Town on December 16 last year. Picture: THE TIMES

This country has a long history of grand marches, but Friday’s marches across the nation come from a different playbook.

Instead of one single grand march, dozens are scheduled in different towns and cities, run by different organisations, all with their own aims and characteristics.

We are seeking, really for the first time, the physical manifestation of a scattered opposition.

For example, in the past, the crucial element in many marches was trade union federation Cosatu. The movement’s ability to turn out large crowds was the stuff of legend.

But in this case it is sitting out the marches, despite the organisation this week calling for President Jacob Zuma to resign, the precise reason that the marches have been called.

It is cause to smile slightly.

Cosatu, which calls marches at the drop of a hat, is suddenly concerned about "agents of monopoly capital", which it says aim to "remove a democratically elected government".

In a statement, Cosatu said it was "clear" on the issue. "The fact that some people agree with us on the president stepping down does not mean that they are our friends. They are saying this to drive their narrow regime-change agenda and we reject it," the movement said.

Notwithstanding Cosatu’s "clarity" on the issue, it is obvious the call to go marching is a divisive one within the various worker organisations.

The newly established South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), launched by former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, is encouraging its members to march, as is the Federation of Unions of SA.

The confusion and, let’s face it, the hypocrisy is not one-sided. Business normally frowns upon most marches, concerned they will lead to productivity declines.

In this case, however, Business Unity SA has not taken sides on the issue, saying its members are free to decide what to do.

It’s hard not to notice that it is conspicuously less voluble about the disruption to business than it has been in the past.

If the "to march, or not to march" question is hard for workers and their representative organisations, the same is not true for the middle class.

Notwithstanding Cosatu’s 'clarity' on the issue, it is obvious the call to go marching is a divisive one within the various worker organisations

The heads of banks, auditing firms and other professional businesses have been inundated with requests from staff to be granted permission to go marching.

Few issues in the country have animated the middle class as much as this one.

And even the participants cannot but notice the irony. How, they ask themselves, does one actually make a poster? Why is it that placards are so hard to construct?

The divided nature of the marches on Friday will probably prompt many to ask the question people who attend marches often ask themselves: is there really any point? Do marches really achieve anything?

The truthful answer is that they seldom in themselves have any real consequences.

Yet, there is a reason they are protected in the Constitution. They constitute, on the one hand, an important social safety valve but, on the other, are also a physical demonstration of how strongly people feel about an issue.

Late in 2016, huge public protests in South Korea, some claimed to be as large as a million people, ultimately contributed to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. Likewise, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016 after huge marches.

Will Friday’s marches be that significant? Probably not.

But will they make the people participating in them feel better. Yes, they probably will.

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