Youth in Tembisa are politically active, but may not turn out to vote – not from apathy, but in protest.
Tembisa still has the look of an afterparty, despite the fact that it's been about two weeks since both the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the ANC threw their respective election-oriented events in this township, northeast of Johannesburg.
Considering the sheer volume of merchandise printed in preparation for these two separate events, and that the first rays of elections are on the horizon, residents wearing their red or yellow T-shirts seem to appear from every corner.
Other party paraphernalia – specifically posters and pamphlets – dot the township like a storm of confetti. In some parts, EFF posters with Julius Malema’s closed-mouth smile cover shack walls and container panels.
On its main southern artery (Andrew Mapheto Drive), a giant Democratic Alliance billboard bearing the image of the party's mayoral candidate, Mmusi Maimane, promises to prioritise jobs.
It is clear enough why political parties would ramp up their election drives in this township: there are roughly half a million people living here and 66% of the community’s 380 000 eligible voters are registered. This percentage is only 14% below the national average, according to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). Most of Tembisa’s 43km² expanse falls in the metropolitan municipality of Ekurhuleni, where, according to the IEC, there are more than 1.5-million eligible voters.
"One of the reasons why they [the EFF] chose Tembisa to launch their election manifesto was because of the Winnie Mandela settlement," says Tshepo Moremi, a former chairperson of the Pan Africanist Congress’s (PAC's) Tembisa sub-regional branch.
Moremi says the settlement has the highest concentration of EFF members in Tembisa. He was among the thousands who crammed into the township's Mehlareng Stadium on February 22 to witness the launch of the party's manifesto.
"The EFF has revived hopes in people's consciences, to a point where they want to register and change what they can through the vote."
The party claims to have about 20 000 members in the northern subregion of Ekurhuleni, which includes Kempton Park, Edenvale and Tembisa.
At the rally in late February, the EFF's Ekurhuleni convenor Mampuru Mampuru said that most people registering for the first time in these elections were so-called born-frees.
"They will take the country in a new direction because they are aligning themselves to parties according to what they say about the present."
Registration in Tembisa appears uneven. In Ward 4, residents say their ANC councillor is visible in the area. Registration levels are around 100%, but in Ward 89, only 48% of 35 000 eligible voters registered.
A taxi driver says most of his colleagues were too busy to register; several residents complain of having no identity documents.
Thomas Ramahlo lives in a shack settlement in Zone Six in Winnie Mandela. He earns money by renting out a portion of his yard to local businessmen (a spaza shop and a public phone container). He is registered and "voted twice in the Mbeki era, but with this election I’m not so sure".
Ramahlo's complaints have been smouldering. "I have also voted in three local government elections. During a recent protest last year, our councillor, in anger, told us that we'll use pit toilets until Jesus comes. We've protested quite a few times here over toilets; we even threw shit on the streets.
Raw sewage flows past a taxi driver while he washes his taxi. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)
"Mondli Gungubele, the mayor, came to speak to us. We also wanted temporary electricity for which we were willing to pay because kids couldn't walk to the library in the evenings. It is too dark in the streets and there are some bushy areas."
When asked about the EFF posters on the walls of his shack, Ramahlo says: "They just asked me to plug the posters here because it's near a busy street. They said I wasn't forced to vote for them."
The shacks in Zone 6 are separated by narrow, unpaved streets that are slippery with mud in the rainy season. In one lane, in a yard with two shacks that share a corner of the property, Rose Mabaso, in her late 20s, is upfront about why she is an ANC loyalist.
"I voted in 2009, that was the first time I was of voting age," she says, seated atop an empty 25-litre PVC container. She is dressed in a bright-yellow "Vote ANC" T-shirt, like the ones handed out at the recent rally in Makhulong stadium.
It is mid-afternoon and the small earthen yard is filled with toddlers and adult women of different ages.
"A lot of my peers didn't [vote]. For some, it was a simple thing of not having IDs, but I can't answer for others. For me, voting is important because I can see the changes," Mabaso says.
"I have a child in grade three at Winnie Mandela Primary School and his school uniform is free. He has a lunch box that he takes to school, where he gets a meal. He gets free textbooks. During school holidays, like this coming Good Friday, they give them food to bring home. So if Malema is enticing people with big promises, it’s because he found the ANC already doing things and merely promises to do more."
According to Statistics SA and IEC figures, people are more likely to vote as they get older. Among 18- and 19-year-olds, 35.5% are registered for this year's elections. In the loosely defined "youth" category, which is from 18- to 29-year-olds, about 6.5-million people in total are registered to vote. The figure jumps to almost 90% among those aged between 30 and 39.
Between 1999 and 2014, registration figures in the youth category have hovered between 5.8-million and 6.5-million. According to an article by researchers Ebrahim Fakir and Zandile Bhengu, the figures are rendered even more static when offset against the country's population growth.
In the article, published by the South African Reconciliation Barometer, Fakir and Bhengu argue that South Africa's youth are politically active. "However, interest in elections as an instrument of political contestation is moderate."
Political analyst Stephen Friedman says the IEC's registration drives over the years have produced fairly uniform results.
"Our youth participation in relation to other countries is high. We don't have any apathy, but what we should consider is whether the registration process is right for our country. Other countries don't do it; as long as you are a citizen and you are of voting age, it is up to the government to ensure that your name is on the voter's roll and you can vote.
"In fact, instead of apathy there was a great deal of voter enthusiasm in the 2011 local government elections and then none of these newer parties were there. If people feel they should not register or not vote because they are despondent, that is not apathy, they’re making a statement."
Trevor Ngwane, a University of Johannesburg PhD candidate studying community formations, says something usually happens to would-be voters during the course of community protests.
"I believe it might not be the same people voting who protest. In Motse in Mpumalanga, people formed the Mpumalanga Party, which won 12 seats in the local government elections. It's not so strong now, but they didn't just protest and then vote ANC. Balfour had one of the most significant protests; they started the Socialist Civic Movement, which won two seats in the local government elections. It was formed as a result of protesting," Ngwane says.
"There is a distinction between the local government and national elections. Sometimes people vote ANC nationally, and then for a smaller party locally. But that was because there was no alternative. Now there is the rise of new parties, which has opened things up a bit." – Additional reporting and research by Laura Grant