Schools in Ermelo’s Wesselton township closed early on Tuesday morning, giving the neighbourhood a holiday vibe that, coupled with the large number of aimless, unemployed youths, contributed to a superficially festive mood.
But beneath the surface, and besides the feverish last-minute campaigning, tensions were seething, especially in Ward 5’s Thembisa section, where a final call for a no-vote campaign was being made. On the front porch of a general dealer on Thembisa Square in the ward I spoke to some young men and asked them whether they were planning to vote.
One of them, sporting an ANC 2010 Durban Conference T-shirt and a matching military cap, objected to my use of the word “boycott” rather than a “stayaway”, which was being punted by those disgruntled with the ANC.
“It’s not a boycott — we are withholding our votes because we have the right to remain silent,” said Alex Thabethe. “Right now people do not want to be engaged politically. They are angry.”
The Mail & Guardian travelled around Johannesburg on election day to find out how people felt about casting their vote. Service delivery seemed to be the main concern for most voters, followed closely by housing and job creation: South Africa wants results.
Thabethe said that the anger stemmed from the ANC national executive committee’s apparent refusal to send a delegation to hear the community’s demands after February’s protests.
Later that afternoon, at Bashele Primary School, Thabethe, who had changed into cream slacks, black canvas takkies and an Adidas jacket with stripes similar to the ANC colours, told a crowd of about 200 that the “no-vote campaign” was to get rid of the “African National corruption” and its culture of repression.
“We want to vote, so it will hurt not to vote for the organisation we love,” he told the crowd, the majority of whom were young women. But to dry a flooding house you must first plug the leaks before wiping the floor. I’m sure all the cleaners in the crowd will know what I’m talking about.
“The ANC must learn that to betray those that voted for you doesn’t pay,” Thabethe said, as he tried to keep the crowd’s wavering attention. They left after agreeing to meet at the square the next morning. The reasons why Ermelo’s youth, operating loosely under the banner of the Msukaligwa Concerned Citizens (MCC), called for a stayaway are complex. Spokesperson Dumisani Mahaye took me to a house up the road from Thembisa Square where a group of young men was repairing damage caused by a fire in January.
Supervising them was Bongani Phakathi, the man who was allegedly interrogated by Hawks head General Simon Mapyane for his supposed role in February’s protests. Phakathi, a popular candidate in Ward 5 before his name was removed, raised R85 000 to help fix the house of Joseph Masuku, an elderly man who lives with his daughter and three grandchildren.
One could say that the timing of the renovations was shrewd political manoeuvring, but many said that Phakathi had been championing their cause since he was an ANC Youth League pioneer decades ago. He would not be drawn into a discussion about the ward’s candidacy controversies and their link to February’s protests, but he intimated that he was being punished for his independence in an environment that favoured cronyism.
Interviewed last month by the Mail & Guardian, Phakathi said that, during his interrogation by the Hawks, he was asked about his relationship with politicians not aligned to the chairperson of the ANC in the province, David Mabuza.
Not far from the house under repair, a group of men with scarred, morose faces sat drinking in front of a four-room home. “The reason you see us spending our time like this is because we have no jobs,” said Senzo Khumalo, his drunken eyes seemingly close to tears.
Then he switched to the elections. “We don’t know about the other political parties, we only know the ANC. So we will vote for Johannes Mabasa [Ward 5’s ANC candidate] but the plan is to actually get him out.”
That might be easier said than done, but it does convey the ward’s widespread feelings about Mabasa. Many said he had been installed unprocedurally and would pay the price for that as soon as the elections were over.
Muzi Chirwa, the ANC’s regional secretary, said that Mabasa was a candidate like any other in the Msukaligwa municipality and that the ANC had “followed its own procedures” in installing him. He concluded that they were expecting a good turnout at the polls.
The call for a stayaway had ignited a frenzy of campaigning in Wesselton, with many ward candidates urging nonvoters to give their vote to other parties rather than waste it. Speaking to a woman outside her house, Cope’s heavy-set Ward 3 candidate, Amanda Mabilisa, told her that this “was her last chance to stand up for the truth”.
But the woman’s husband, hearing the talk outside, stepped out of the kitchen door and asked Mabilisa to leave, saying he would vote for the ANC regardless of its problems. Despite the strong call for a stayaway, the mood seemed to suggest that the ANC would again breeze through these elections in Msukaligwa.
Sbusiso Hlatshwayo, a tall, gaunt-faced man, who stood watching what looked like a last-minute National Freedom Party campaign for votes, which included throwing pamphlets up in the air for children to pick up, said: “Even if there is confusion about councillors, the ANC is strong in this area and people feel the ANC did a lot for them.”
But perhaps it was a teacher at the Bashele Primary School who summed it up best: “We love the ANC. If they could just stop this employment by broerskap [brotherhood] thing. We do not want our government to go back to the white people.”
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