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CityPress - - News - CARIEN DU PLESSIS carien.dup­lessis@city­press.co.za

e are the lucky ones.

“It re­ally is noth­ing else, just luck.”

The woman in her for­ties, who iden­ti­fies her­self only as Mari­anthe, pauses to find the right English words when ex­plain­ing that avoid­ing the ef­fects of the Greek fi­nan­cial cri­sis of the past five years has been a ma­jor chal­lenge.

“We still have our home; we can still go to the su­per­mar­ket – but we are not the sig­nif­i­cant ma­jor­ity,” said the mother of two. “Many of our friends have lost their jobs and houses.”

The self-em­ployed Athe­nian – who works in the busi­ness-to-busi­ness ser­vice in­dus­try – and her friend have brought their four daugh­ters, aged be­tween 16 and eight, to one of the big­gest ral­lies in the Greek cap­i­tal. On a warm, pleas­ant Fri­day night, an es­ti­mated 25 000 peo­ple fill the large Syn­tagma Square in cen­tral Athens next to the Greek Par­lia­ment build­ing – the venue of most of the pop­u­lar po­lit­i­cal ac­tion in the coun­try.

Faint traces of tear gas still hang in the air from when po­lice broke up scuf­fles by marchers ear­lier in the day.

“Nowa­days there’s a dif­fer­ent march ev­ery hour,” a cam­paigner on the square re­marks wryly.

The Com­mu­nist Party of Greece protested ear­lier that peo­ple should ab­stain from vot­ing.

Mari­anthe and her friend’s eight-year-olds, two of a num­ber of chil­dren who have ac­com­pa­nied their par­ents or grand­par­ents to the gath­er­ing, wave white flags with the letters “Oxi” printed on them in red.

The word, pro­nounced “ochi”, means no – a two­syl­la­ble slo­gan many will trans­late into a vote to­day against the fur­ther aus­ter­ity mea­sures needed if the coun­try hopes to re­pay a €1.5 bil­lion (R20.5 bil­lion) in­stal­ment on its loans.

The past five years have been hard for Greeks. In 2009, the Euro­pean debt cri­sis re­sulted in Greek salaries plum­met­ing, with taxes ris­ing sharply – and many have had enough.

Another mid­dle-aged woman at the no rally says: “There is a war against the peo­ple of Greece, and they started by clos­ing the banks to de­press us.”

A younger woman, Elena Chris­tidi, who works as a wait­ress in her fam­ily-owned tra­di­tional res­tau­rant, says lifestyles have changed.

“Fewer peo­ple come out, the nightlife in Athens is more quiet. Ten years ago, you could go out on a Mon­day night and find many crowded places. Now, not so much,” she says. “Also, I now think twice be­fore buy­ing some­thing.”

She, too, has been “lucky”. Cam­paign­ers say be­tween 15 and 20 peo­ple are los­ing their homes ev­ery week in Athens alone be­cause they can no longer af­ford to pay mort­gages and rents.

To­day’s snap ref­er­en­dum, called barely a week ago and the coun­try’s first in 41 years, has deeply di­vided the Greeks.

Fri­day night’s yes rally at the Pana­thenaic Sta­dium, less than a kilo­me­tre away from the no rally, at­tracted an es­ti­mated 20 000 peo­ple.

There was a tight se­cu­rity pres­ence to pre­vent any po­ten­tial clashes.

At that gath­er­ing, the Euro­pean Union an­them, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, was played and crowds, wav­ing Greek and Euro­pean Union flags, chanted “Greece, Europe, democ­racy” in stark con­trast to the anti-Eu­ro­zone sen­ti­ment at the meet­ing a short way away.

The rather com­pli­cated ref­er­en­dum ques­tion is, how­ever, a moot point now, be­cause al­ready the deal of­fered by Greece’s cred­i­tors – the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion, the Euro­pean Cen­tral Bank and the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund – is off the ta­ble. It in­volved cash in re­turn for re­forms but ex­pired on Tues­day. Any fur­ther ne­go­ti­a­tions have been sus­pended pend­ing the ref­er­en­dum re­sult.

Should the knife-edge poll tip in favour of the no vot­ers, it could ul­ti­mately mean an exit from the Eu­ro­zone. Should it end in a yes vote, the six-mon­thold gov­ern­ment of 40-year-old Prime Min­is­ter Alexis Tsipras and his rad­i­cal left Syriza party may have to go. Fi­nance Min­is­ter Yanis Varoufakis has al­ready said he would re­sign if the yes vote won.

Tsipras’ crit­ics have said the ref­er­en­dum is un­fair to the Greek peo­ple.

“The Greeks were al­ready asked to de­cide on a gov­ern­ment in Jan­uary. It should take de­ci­sions on their be­half, but now the ball is thrown back at them,” said a Ger­man na­tional work­ing as a re­cep­tion­ist in Athens.

Tsipras made an emo­tional plea for a no vote on Fri­day night in a short speech be­tween per­for­mances of hard rock and tra­di­tional mu­sic at the rally.

He told vot­ers to “say a proud no to ul­ti­ma­tums and those who ter­rorise you”.

What­ever the out­come of the ref­er­en­dum, he said, it was a cel­e­bra­tion of democ­racy.

“On Sun­day we are not just de­cid­ing whether we are stay­ing in Europe, but we are de­cid­ing whether to live with dig­nity in Europe,” he said, adding that the eyes of the world were on Greece.

Sym­pa­thy ral­lies were held in Ger­many, Bel­gium, Bri­tain and Poland.

It has been a dif­fi­cult week for Greeks, who have seen their banks shut­ting and re­stric­tions placed on how much money they can with­draw from ATMs, and has seen the in­tro­duc­tion of free public trans­port.

Greek banks only have enough emer­gency liq­uid­ity as­sis­tance to last un­til to­mor­row, and a worst-case sce­nario would be hy­per­in­fla­tion and a re­turn to the drachma. Only a few Greeks have taken steps to pro­vide for such a sce­nario. The only thing that is cer­tain is un­cer­tainty. As one no cam­paigner says: “No­body knows what will hap­pen on Mon­day.”

PHOTO: YAN­NIS BEHRAKIS / POOL VIA BLOOMBERG

GREEK PRIDE Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s prime min­is­ter, at a rally against ac­cept­ing Euro­pean bailout con­di­tions, on Syn­tagma Square in Athens on Fri­day. The coun­try’s ref­er­en­dum on whether to stay or leave the EU is be­ing held to­day

PHOTO: REUTERS

SAY NO Peo­ple hold signs sup­port­ing an exit from Europe

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