Feeling that they were locked out of the system was what drove residents of Zamdela township outside Sasolburg in the northern Free State into the streets early last year.
But the fury that led to violence over the issue last year has dissipated. Being included in the electoral process could explain why these residents are voting in peace.
Still, the feeling that a municipal merger of Zamdela and Sasolburg with neighbouring Parys – a prospect that sparked the initial outrage – could still happen has shaded the calm with uneasiness and suspense.
It is just after 7am on Wednesday and the mist lifts around Zamdela’s Nkgopoleng Secondary School, where the Independent Electoral Commission has set up a polling station. A handful of voters make their way to the polling booth.
There is an ANC tent outside the school grounds and two AgangSA-branded cars standing nearby.
President Jacob Zuma’s face smiles down omnipresently from ANC posters but graffiti has robbed it of any dignity. Someone has drawn a speech bubble next to Zuma’s head on one poster, which reads: “I surrender for eating your money and I don’t want any votes. I vote for EFF but shut up.”
For many voters, the violence of the protests is still fresh in their minds. But that was about a specific issue – the election is more abstract, it doesn’t evoke the same sort of passion. The police presence on Wednesday is minimal and there is no obvious threat of violence.
By the middle of the morning, there are about a hundred people milling around the voting station in ward 10, where 2 703 voters are registered.
Malefetane Mokubung (34) and his two friends were involved in the protests. He says that the violence flared up as unofficial word spread through Zamdela in January 2013 that Sasolburg, under which Zamdela falls, in the Metsimaholo municipality, would be merged with Parys in the Ngwathe municipality.
“It started with a rumour and people began talking among themselves,” Mokubung says. “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.”
Lehlohonolo Monenesi (29) adds: “People were getting hospital bills with the Parys dialling 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?” he says.
Parys is 41km away from Sasolburg and residents say there would be no public transport to the new seat of power. It was rumoured that all the main institutions – hospitals, government offices and even businesses – would be moved to Parys.
For now, it seems that the merger is on hold, and so are the anger and the protests.
The ANC won a by-election in a ward here in February this year. In 2011, it won the municipality with an 83.5% majority.
But opposition support has slowly been rising here, over the past four elections. This municipality is home to the biggest chunk of DA support in the Free State: 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 Monenela (34) is a Zamdela resident who lives across the road from the polling station but he did not vote on Wednesday.
“The protests were bad, man,” he says.
“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.
‘Politics a waste of time’
“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 young men walk past the polling station en route to a friend’s house. They aren’t voting, either. They don’t want to be named because they want to complain about the local council and its problems, and they fear being quoted could cost them jobs in the future. What’s the point of voting?
“Mandela was the only man I voted for. Do you know how many times I have tried to get work at the municipality? But you can’t get those jobs if you don’t know someone.
“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 election results had not been published at the time of the print edition going to press. For election updates, go to SA Votes.