/ 20 May 2011

Disillusioned voters snub Ficksburg poll

When the Meqheleng Library was looted and set alight after the murder of community activist Andries Tatane in Ficksburg last month, only a handful of books survived the fire.

On Wednesday an empty hall in the right wing of the building was used as a voting station, while the rest of the building — damages to which are estimated to be R760 000 — was undergoing renovations. Only a dated poster of Ghananian writer Ayi Kwei Armah behind the Independent Electoral Commission staff reminded people that this was once a functional place of learning.

At the library where Tatane once held extra maths and science classes, only 285 of the expected 1 455 voters had turned out in this Ficksburg township by 4pm on Wednesday. A middle-aged couple walking out of the library after voting stopped to comment to an acquaintance about the absence of queues.

I listened as they speculated about the reasons for the dip in turnout. Could it be Tatane's shocking death at the hands of the police a few weeks ago? Could it be the lack of services, which has turned whole sections of the townships into dumping sites? Could it be questionable ward candidates, some of whom are viewed as incompetent?

The couple said that, as the parents of a media celebrity, they preferred to remain nameless. This time, they said, they had voted for change.

"The previous party we voted for is our party," the woman said. "It allowed us rights and dignity but the problem is our leaders. They are uncommunicative and they are liars."

Radio reports suggested earlier in the day that most of those who turned out were middle-aged and elderly. That pattern appeared unchanged as the day progressed.

Nehemiah Taioe, a 30-year-old from Meqheleng's Zone 2, said he had always voted in previous elections but doubted whether he would this time. "As you can see, there is no waste collection here. Our kasi [township] is dirty," he said, standing guard outside the library's gates. "When you go to other places, like Ladybrand, you can see how clean they are."

His friend, Phakisa Makoele, said he last voted in 2009 and has since become disillusioned with the ANC. However, he was not willing to vote for other parties because he does not trust them.

"The people who are voting here are old people. We are not really interested because we can see what is happening," he said. "We can't even play soccer here. They don't repair the fields and they don't even build tennis courts. We have nothing to do so we end up smoking weed."

'No real function'
Illustrating Makoele's words, a soccer pitch I see in the area is a dust bowl and its corners are demarcated by heaps of open garbage. A look inside the "sports centre", vandalised after the protests that left Tatane dead, reveals an empty shell that had no real function to begin with.

Marallaneng Secondary School, where Tatane was once a pupil, is around the corner from Maqheleng Library. Outside the gates of this voting station I met two men in their mid-60s comparing stamps on their ID documents.

They too had just finished voting but they were not quite sure why they had bothered: "We just did it. I guess it's force of habit," said Abiel Mokhele from inside his Hilux bakkie. In Zone 8, where people have been without water for years and are still reliant on bucket-system toilets, which they have to maintain themselves, I stopped a group of young women in ANC T-shirts who were returning from casting their votes.

One of them, Nthabiseng Moeletsi, said that in spite of the problems in her ward, she felt confident voting for the ANC as usual because she knew that the group called Maqheleng Concerned Citizens would assist her if her problems fell on deaf ears.

In the past few months the Meqheleng Concerned Citizens group has grown in stature, with many seeing it as a credible voice to intervene in disputes with the Setsoto municipality.

A march organised by the group last week was not authorised by local authorities. There was a brief confrontation with police when some of the participants threw stones and barricaded streets. It turned into a session in which provincial cooperative governance department head Kopung Ralinkontsane briefed the crowd on the progress of the corruption investigation into the municipality.

Three directors and a manager were put on special leave following the allegations, Ralinkontsane said. According to a newspaper report, the directors were from the departments of finance, cooperative services and economic and community services. The manager was from the roads and storm-water department.

George Thlomola, an executive committee member of the Meqheleng Concerned Citizens, showed me parts of the township where roads are so unmanageable that residents have to park their cars at a distance from their homes. In other areas, such as Zone 6, there is constantly leaking sewage, huge ditches on some roads as a result of soil erosion and dumping on various corners.

Later in the afternoon, as Thlomola and I returned to the Meqheleng Library, he pointed out Tatane's brother, Lefu, walking along a gravel road. Thlomola introduced us and I asked him whether he was on his way to vote.

"I do not want to do something that will disturb my conscience later on," he said. "I have voted so many times before. I'm starting to lose sight of why."

Before he walked off, he asked me sarcastically if I thought his comments would make a good story. I told him I just wanted to hear from him as a person, especially one who had lost a brother in the fight for justice.