A little over a year ago, anti-government sentiment in Zamdela spilled over into the dusty streets in a series of violent protests.
Now it is election day, 2014, and what once was fury has now dissipated into the ether, leaving an eerie apathy in its wake.
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It is just after 7am on Wednesday, and the mist lifts around Nkgopoleng Secondary School, where the Independent Electoral Commission has set up a polling station in Zamdela.
A handful of voters make their way to the polling booth. There is an ANC tent outside the school grounds, and two Agang SA-branded cars parked nearby. President Jacob Zuma’s face on ANC posters is visible everywhere, but graffiti has robbed it of dignity. Someone has drawn a speech bubble next to Zuma’s head on one poster, which reads: “I surrender for eating your money & I don’t want any votes. I vote for EFF but shut up.”
For many voters, the violence of the 2013 protests is still clear in their minds. But that was a specific issue, and the election does not elicit the same passionate response.
There was minimal police presence on Wednesday, and no obvious threat of violence. At the Assemblies of God church nearby, DA volunteers were also visible. This ward in Zamdela has 2 703 voters registered, yet by mid-morning there were no more than a hundred voters milling about.
Malefetane Mokubung (34) and his two friends were involved in the 2013 protests. He explains that the violence flared up as unofficial word spread through Zamdela in early 2013 that Sasolburg (under which Zamdela falls) in the Metsimaholo municipality would be merged with Parys in the Ngwathe municipality. Protests continued into April, with a march against the mayor.
“It started with a rumour, and people began talking amongst themselves,” Mokubung explains. “Then, they wanted answers from their leaders. But the leaders didn’t give them any answers. That’s when they started to get angry. They called meetings with the mayor, no one pitched … ”
His friend, Lehlohonolo Monenesi (29) adds: “People were getting hospital bills with the Parys dialing code in the letterhead. And so they began to feel like there was proof that the municipalities would be merged, after all, without their permission.
“Then we burnt tyres, because that’s how we were taught. That’s how people did it in the eighties, not so?” Monenesi said.
Parys is 41km away from Sasolburg, and residents say there was no public transport to the new seat of power. It was rumoured that all the main institutions – hospitals, government offices, even businesses, would be relocated to Parys.
For now, it seems the merger is on hold, and so is the anger, and the protests.
The ANC won a by-election in one ward here in February 2014. In 2011, it won the municipality with an 83.5% majority. Yet opposition support has shown an upward trend in the last four elections.
This municipality is home to the biggest chunk of DA support in the Free State province: the party gained 16.7 % in 2004, and 19.9 % in 2009. Unemployment is on the minds of many voters here. Those who have work are mainly employed by the local coal refinery, or as contractors in the industrial areas.
Jabu Mononela (34) has just finished his night shift as a safety officer at an industrial area called Powerville near Vereeniging. He stands at his gate in Zamdela, watching the voters trickle into the polling station across the road from his house. He isn’t voting. He is tired from a night’s work and wants to sleep, but all the sleep in the world couldn’t drag him to the ballot box just 10m away.
“The protests were bad, man. Kids couldn’t go to school, people couldn’t go to work. That’s why I don’t see the point in politics. Nothing is ever going to change. The ANC has done a lot for the country but that was the previous ANC, not the current one. Politics is just a waste of time.”
Talk of opposition parties makes Monenela laugh. Across the road two more young men walk past the station en route to a friend’s house. They aren’t voting, either. They don’t want to be quoted because they want to tell the Mail & Guardian about the local council and its problems, and they fear being quoted will cost them future jobs. They are contract workers at a nearby refinery. They have been without work for about a year. Their next job starts in August.
“What’s the point of voting? Mandela was the only man I voted for. Do you know how many times I’ve tried to get work at the municipality? But you can’t get those jobs if you don’t know someone.
“And the expanded public works programme jobs pay R60 a day, but you only get paid two months after the job … You’ll see, after the election, when the ANC wins, there will be a big party here. But there won’t be any money for us. They say if we don’t vote we can’t complain, but that’s just nonsense. I’m a South African just like anyone else.”
The men also complain about a lack of skills in the area and no training colleges – you need to have completed mathematics in matric to be trained by one of the coal plants.
But Lebohang Musi (21) is more optimistic. She is voting for the first time and remembers the protests clearly. She wasn’t involved, and her mother kept her at home throughout, afraid that Musi would be injured or arrested if she strayed too close to the flames. “I’m so excited to vote. I couldn’t even sleep last night. My vote is my secret, you see, but I can tell you that I’m not going to spoil my ballot. There are a lot of problems here, like you have to pay bribes to get jobs, but we all have to speak our minds,” she says.