At 9:00 on Wednesday morning, only a few people in union T-shirts sat in the shade in Johannesburg's Mary Fitzgerald Square, the listed starting point in the city for Cosatu's protected national strike. “Sorry guys, the march is actually starting in Pieter Roos Park,” a unionist said, pointing across town.

About 3,500 supporters marched through Johannesburg in what sometimes felt disorganised and pointless fashion, but if the event was more about politics and power then Cosatu achieved its goal. The federation is back on the streets and can pull a crowd without the National Union of Metalworkers SA (Numsa) or its expelled general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. Other demonstrations also took place across the country.

In the heat, the crowd walked up Constitutional Hill for its first stop at Telkom. “People say Cosatu is no more. We are here to tell all that Cosatu is alive. We are here for everybody to appreciate Cosatu remains a committed organisation and that if you are not under Cosatu you remain disorganised. We are here today this morning to tell all and sundry that Cosatu is still a force to be reckoned with,” said federation president S'dumo Dlamini.

The Johannesburg event included stops at the premier's office, provincial department of labour, Bank City, and the Chamber of Mines. Members from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), SA Municipal Workers Union, the Chemical Energy Paper Printing Wood and Allied Workers Union (Ceppawu), the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union, the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union were there, while the SA Communist Party (SACP) also came out in support.

Marcher Nokulunga Khoza said the national strike wasn't a response to the anti-corruption march led the week before. She was there to fight against e-tolls and labour brokers. Ceppwawu member Charles Matuludi was there because of his union's concerns with its registration status. Nicholas Mabantu was there because he and others were recently retrenched from the Birchwood Hotel.

After the march, Dlamini said he was “very, very happy” with the turnout. “The message sent to both economic and political centres of power was clear and unambiguous. Both government and monopoly capital need to grasp the gravity of the situation and workers have run out of patience. Workers came out in their numbers to make it clear that it is not the union leadership that is agitating for the change but it is the workers themselves. They also made it clear that they are not prepared to compromise,” said Cosatu's press release on Wednesday afternoon.

The workers indeed are unhappy with a lot of things. Demands on Wednesday included functioning public transport, the scrapping of e-tolls, a solution to job losses, the implementation of National Health Insurance, and decent pay.

Speaking at Bank City, SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande lamented the views of those who said Cosatu was dying. “We are saying retrenchments are a declaration of war on decent work. The licences of those companies which are not dedicated to creating job opportunities should not be renewed by the government,” he told the crowd that was showing signs of tiring; some started to disperse after marching in the heat. Mzimande also called for companies to share profits with workers and for the nationalisation of Sasol.

At the premier's office Cosatu leaders took a stance: we're not leaving until Premier David Makhura respects the workers and accepts the memorandum himself; we'll sleep here if we have to. Ten minutes later, they handed the memorandum over to MEC Jacob Mamabolo.

At the Chamber of Mines there were harsh words for the institution they said supported ongoing racism and exploitation that had failed to achieve meaningful transformation. The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union was criticised as a “Micky Mouse union” while NUM leadership criticised Sibanye for still discussing its wage negotiations.

“Those media people who attended the last week's march for the first time should not think that it was the first march against corruption because it wasn't the first. The first march against corruption was organised by Cosatu and the SACP and took place in Durban. The problem is that media is highly monopolised in this country and this must come to an end,” said Dlamini, bringing the issue back to the anti-corruption march last week.

He continued with a shot at the new left: “You can undermine workers and wear red like us but we you cannot fool us, we know you for who you are. You must focus on your own issues.”

With so many issues, stops and demands on the day, it's hard to say quite what the march was about or was designed to achieve. But a running theme was Cosatu's role as a true leader of the working class that, said the unionists, couldn't be assumed by any other organisation. With the country's largest union Numsa and its most known unionist Vavi looking to unite the working class, Wednesday was essentially a show of strength, an attempt at unity while the federation is fractured and a search for relevance.DM