How fear and loathing has added fuel to the flames of the Tshwane unrest

Shellshock: The remains of buses that were torched in Tshwane. Older people generally have watched the violence and looting with dismay. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Shellshock: The remains of buses that were torched in Tshwane. Older people generally have watched the violence and looting with dismay. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Bursary schemes for underprivileged youth. Free wi-fi in the city centre. 15 000 people employed through a public works programme.
Low-cost housing development for the poor. New roads and water supplied directly to each household.

This is outgoing Tshwane mayor Kgosientso “Sputla” Ramokgopa’s five-year legacy in the minds of the residents who embarked on a destructive protest in the capital’s townships this week. 

This is also what some residents of Ga-Rankuwa, Mabopane, Atteridgeville and Soshanguve said they fear losing if former public works minister Thoko Didiza is inaugurated as the new mayor of the capital city’s municipality.

Although this fear has been dismissed by the ANC as unfounded, it is shared by the youngsters being shot at with rubber bullets — and those stripping the charred metal from torched buses — as well as the older, more sensible generation watching it unfold from afar.

“Here and there Sputla has made a difference in our township and obviously if that lady takes over there will be change in service delivery,” Nene, who refused to give his last name, said, sitting on a brick in front of his renovated house in Ga-Rankuwa.

“I don’t think that these youngsters understand the politics behind the ANC decision. As far as I can see, it’s just the kids who are smoking drugs. They don’t know anything, all they want to do is destroy,” he said.

The fear of government programmes being shut down was described as “misinformation” by Ramokgopa this week, as he attempted to reassure Atteridgeville residents at a community meeting that his departure would not halt development in the area.

Widespread vandalism, looting and clashes with police were sparked by the ANC’s announcement that Ramokgopa will not stand for re-election during local government elections on August 3. 

This week, the atmosphere was electric in the city’s townships. From east to west, north to south, in Mamelodi, Hammanskraal, Atteridgeville, Ga-Rankuwa, Mabopane and Soshanguve, young people lined the streets and gathered on neighbourhood corners, in front of spaza shops and franchise stores, waiting for the police to leave, before starting a looting spree. As the sun set on the city, tyres were lit and rocks used to block main roads, while groups of people ransacked local shops.

The protests appear to stem from unhappiness over Ramokgopa’s exclusion by the ANC — and the imposition of Didiza on the party’s branches and tribalism is the main reason for the capital burning.

“We should put a Tswana person to replace her so the Tswana people can be represented in Parliament. As it stands, they [Zulu and Xhosas] only pick [leaders] among themselves. There are no Tswana people in Parliament,” said Leta Modisane.

This reasoning was repeated by several protesters, who were also seen looting shops in the townships this week, which prompted condemnation from Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is also the ANC deputy president.

For some of the men of Ga-Rankuwa, the looting and protests are a disappointing sight. Thirty-eight-year-old Molefe Padi slowly walked up to his half-built wall on the main road nearby a shopping complex and shook his head when asked about the young people taking part in the demonstration. 

He had been monitoring the protests but refused to be drawn on whether they are being used by politicians in a broader factional battle. “But I think we were wrong to take to the streets to fight. What we should have done is vote the ANC out of power or abstain from the election. That would be the easiest way.”

Although the looting usually happens at night, dozens of people were out on the streets throughout the day, observing a police operation meant to restore calm and recover the stolen goods. 

Groups of people converge in front of RDP houses and in open fields, their eyes following two police vehicles navigating the township’s narrow streets at high speed. 

The police stop and search anyone they see pushing a black municipal rubbish bin. Police intelligence suggests some of the protesters are using bins to move the looted goods around the township. In full riot gear, the police are armed with R5s, draped across their bulletproof vests. Intermittently, they jump out of their car to demand that the people open their bins. 

Then, with equal speed, they jump back in and rapidly accelerate down the battered township roads — only to bring their vehicle to a grinding stop and to drive carefully over the makeshift speed bumps set up by residents. But this exercise proves fruitless — almost none of the looted goods are recovered.

Three blocks away from the protest, in a much quieter street in Ga-Rankuwa, an elderly man who did not want to be identified, has just returned from work and is now seated in his living room, still dressed in his blue overalls, with his safety boots placed next to him.

He believes the urgent police response and their difficulty driving through the township exemplifies the real issues. He’s unhappy about the quick government response to violence and protesting, and its slow response to demands for better roads, street lights and water.

It’s the first time he has been interviewed about the situation in his community. He has lived in the four-roomed house his entire life, now with his wife and children, one of whom has a child of her own. He says his problems are the obvious ones, the things you can see.

“I am not political. I don’t know the incoming mayor or what she will bring. I don’t know what the current mayor brought. All I want here is better services. Still no street lights or proper speed bumps from the beginning to the end of the road, and we have children. When it rains, my yard also gets flooded,” he says.

In neighbouring Mabopane township, a large group of people have gathered in front of the local Shoprite supermarket. It’s the first time this shopping complex has been targeted and police are at the scene to ensure the shops aren’t looted. At the opposite end of the street, an elderly woman has come out of her yard with her family, curious about the commotion down the road. 

As two young people walk eagerly past her house and towards the supermarket, she wags her finger at them, as if to warn them not to take part in the demonstration.

“Our street has been quiet; it’s only today that the police and children are coming. But I think they are just being criminal because they don’t know much about politics. They just want to rob the Pakistanis and Somali shops,” the woman says.

The parents and guardians of the young people taking part in the demonstrations seem united in their disappointment at the violence, with some saying they feel demotivated by the looting and the torching of buses, asking how this will affect the country’s future.

Back in Ga-Rankuwa, Modisane has been reconsidering the problem — other than her dissatisfaction with the lack of Tswana representation. She’s concerned about the youth who have largely been responsible for the carnage across Tshwane. 

“Actually, this country doesn’t have a future. It doesn’t matter whether they are educated or not; it doesn’t make a difference because they won’t get jobs,” Modisane says.

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