Bekkersdal votes after polling stations torched overnight

As the sun set on Tuesday, residents of Bekkersdal, west of Johannesburg, took to the side streets of the 47 000-strong township to voice their opposition to elections. 

Three tented voting stations were burnt down, and police had to deploy force to stop more from going the same way. By 10pm however, calm had been restored and the heavy police hippos and army nyalas were returning to their base of operations in an open veld outside Bekkersdal. 

Officers there said the problem had been young people who threw rocks and petrol bombs before running back down smaller roads. This made it too dangerous to deploy anything except the heaviest vehicles. With a simmering peace installed, they worried that voting day would bring further escalation.

But as the sun rose on Wednesday morning, organised queues started to form outside voting stations. ”You see, the problem is the young people,” said Thulasizwe Mogaleng. Standing in a growing queue, he pointed to his fellow voters â€“ most of them with worn, older faces. ”They cause the problems … but here you have the older people. We fought but the young ones do not understand what this cost us.”

Behind Mogaleng a police nyala blocked out most of the silhouette of a gold mine in the background â€“ the industry that brought people here and one of the few job creators in the area.

People in various queues, mostly speaking Sesotho, discussed their options for the vote. Most seemed to have stayed loyal to the ANC. ”We vote for the ANC because they give us grants and some things work,” said Margaret Monqela. Yes, things could always get better, she said, but Monqela does not trust other parties to be the ones to make a change. ”You cannot trust other parties. The DA [Democratic Alliance] is about whites and the EFF [Economic Freedom Front] causes trouble. We don’t want trouble.”

‘Be polite and vigilant’
Monqela’s voting station â€“ a red and yellow tent on an open patch of red earth â€“ was ringed by police. Two dozen officers walked around, chatting and making jokes. One of them came out of the station holding a confiscated, makeshift knobkerrie made from a metal pipe with a yellow light bulb melted on to the top.

”We have to be polite and vigilant,” a police officer said. With the recent violence, it would be tricky getting the right balance during a long election day. He started at 5.30am. He was, however, jovial and said elections would go well because of the police presence. ”People won’t cause problems with so many of us here.” His confidence was borne by the throaty rumble of a nyala, with camouflaged soldiers standing out of its hatches, as it passed by.

There was a constant stream of police around Bekkersdal, the cause of much consternation among residents, and which led them to burn IEC tents. ”They are here to threaten us so we vote, but why should we? Voting gets you nothing,” said a yawning Samuel Moditshe. Still a teenager, he dropped out of high school because ”school does nothing to get you work”. He gets by on his grandmother’s social grant and has given up looking for work. Like many young people here, he is not in the queues, and said there is little use in voting.

His lack of optimism was, however, not shared in the winding queues outside the election tents that replaced the burnt ones. Here people stood in the growing heat, clutching their green ID books for their chance to vote. ”I will have a JB [whiskey] after this vote. The power is in my hands,” said James Kekana while vigorously brandishing identity document.

Bekkersdal is like so many communities in Gauteng. Established in 1945, it was a place to pool labourers for the local mines. These prospered and drove provincial growth, but little of the wealth was translated into prosperity in the community.

‘Dirty votes’ from Bekkersdal
It is divided between those on government grants â€“ people who live in RDP houses with water and electricity connections â€“ and those caught in the grey area, who earn too much to benefit from the social grant, but too little to own their own houses. These people also live in the informal settlement bordering the tar roads of Bekkersdal. These residents are all immigrants to the West Rand, with a third of them hailing from the Eastern Cape and the rest mainly coming from the North West and Free State.

In October last year, residents took to the streets to demand the removal of the mayor, Nonkuliso Thunzi, and for the Westonaria local municipality to be placed under administration. 

The violence saw roads blockaded with burning tyres, and the destruction of government and private property. The gymnasium, municipal offices, city centre and community hall were all damaged at a total cost of R11.2-million. 

Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane and the ANC’s provincial chairperson Paul Mashatile at the time went to the community to try to negotiate a ceasefire. But violence lasted for a week before it simmered down.

Mokonyane was quoted then as saying the ANC did not want ”dirty votes” from the people of Bekkersdal. She later issued a statement saying this was an incorrect quote, but it struck a nerve with residents nevertheless.

Nyalas and heavily armed police
Residents previously said they would boycott the elections until their demands were met. The Westonaria Concerned Resident’s Association has refused to listen to the ANC, saying that all their previous promises were empty ones.  

Since then, the ANC has visited the community but always with a heavy security presence. When different ministers in Parliament’s security cluster visited Bekkersdal last weekend, it was under the protection of three nyalas and heavily armed police. 

In March, local government officials tried to do a walkabout in the community, but they were met with violent opposition. Stones were thrown at the contingent and at police, who opened fire with rubber bullets. The residents association and the DA subsequently laid charges against the ANC, claiming that people dressed in that party’s clothes had shot at unarmed people.   


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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is a former acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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