The wrangling around the #AlexShutDown protests has exposed pre-election politics in all its gritty pettiness.
Amid the noise of a mayor who would not face residents of his city, a governing party shutting its eyes to its own past failures and accusations being flung around of orchestrated discontent, the fact remains that the plight of the people of Alexandra continues to be dire, a quarter-century into democracy.
One of the country’s oldest townships in South Africa’s largest city took centre stage this week when a group of protesters made their way across the highway into the richest square mile on the continent, Sandton, to hand over a memorandum to the Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba.
Last Friday, Municipal IQ, a data and intelligence service, announced a record high number of service delivery protests countrywide in the first quarter of 2019. By the end of the week, protests had erupted in Tshwane, Khayelitsha, Kroonstad and Orange Grove in Johannesburg.
Municipal IQ said the uptick in protest action was expected as communities make the most of the opportunity to draw politicians’ attention to their plights ahead of the key polls on May 8.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the Democratic Alliance (DA) have accused the ANC of instigating the Alex protests — with the EFF warning the governing party that its conduct could lead to the country being set alight as the discontent spreads.
The response by various spheres of government to the Alex protests illustrated poor intergovernmental relations and a lack of trust between the DA-led City of Johannesburg and the ANC provincial government. The DA’s Mashaba accused the ANC of orchestrating the Alex shutdown, but polling by political parties in the last week indicated that, if this was so, it had backfired spectacularly.
The DA’s and independent polls suggested that the ANC’s numbers took a nosedive as the Alex protests dominated the news cycle. Indications are that the ANC’s support in Gauteng had dipped by between three and four percentage points over the last week.
Mashaba said the ANC was using the real concerns of the people of Alex as tools in its election campaign.
He alleged there was a “sinister campaign” at play, which he describes as the “weaponisation of the state against the City of Johannesburg”.
The DA said the shutdown was also fuelled by unhappiness about the slow delivery of housing — the responsibility of the provincial government.
As Mashaba raged against the provincial government, in Alexandra, Gauteng Premier David Makhura and Gauteng housing MEC Uhuru Moiloa were meeting the leaders of the #AlexShutdown movement behind closed doors.
Makhura said the most pressing issue raised by the committee was the illegal occupation of land — a problem that rests with by-law enforcement — which is under the remit of the City of Johannesburg.
“The community has said to me that they have asked the city to come and act just on by-law enforcement. People are building illegal structures on properties … illegal structures are coming up everywhere in Alexandra,” he said.
“Unless there is urgent action to stop the illegal occupation of land … they say we will end up with Alexandra having no space. And this is a major, major hazard,” Makhura added.
He said if illegal occupations were not dealt with decisively, the burden of “decongesting Alexandra would be fourfold”. Makhura was diplomatic about the perceived tensions between the ANC-led provincial government and the City of Johannesburg: “This morning I don’t want to be blaming any sphere of government. It’s not my preoccupation as the premier,” Makhura said.
“There are those who want to continue blaming others, but I am sure when we sit down we will see who is not doing what. And I am very sure that the City of Johannesburg has to do its job. The provincial government has to do its job.”
Independent election analyst Dawie Scholtz says the protests appeared to be doing two things — driving the minority vote, which had been won over to the ANC, back to the DA, and having an effect on the “undecided” black vote — away from the ANC.
Scholtz said this did not mean that the DA was benefiting from the ANC slide. “Interestingly, the EFF has the biggest advantage,” he said.
EFF leader Julius Malema weighed in on the matter, saying that, although Mashaba should have addressed the protesters when called on to do so, there was “no mess” created by the DA in Alex.
“The DA found that mess there and it’s not doing anything about it, that’s the only problem,” Malema said.
The DA’s numbers indicated a three-to-four percentage point drop in support for the ANC in the last five days, in Gauteng specifically. DA chief executive Jonathan Moakes said there are legitimate concerns in Alex, but that the “ANC-sponsored protest” was aimed at deflecting attention away from the governing party’s failures.
Moakes said there is no indication from the DA’s perspective that the EFF is picking up support. “We are picking up as the ANC drops. We have people campaigning on the ground in Alex and the response so far has been very positive,” he said.
The ANC’s head of elections, Lebogang Maile, did not directly respond to whether the protests were affecting the party numbers, saying the numbers were not yet available.
“We are busy polling now, but I can tell you that issues being raised by the community are genuine issues. This has nothing to do with politics,” he said.
But he added that the current situation showed that the City did not have a plan to deal with the situation in Alex, which is why its mayor refused to meet the protesters. The issues that needed to be addressed included illegal structures springing up and the illegal occupation of land in the township as well as sewage and refuse removal.
Maile also admitted that there were “historical issues”, which the provincial government would attend to, but it was important to separate “fact from fiction”. “To say we are responsible for the shutdown as the ANC is fiction,” he said.
President Cyril Ramaphosa visited the area in his role as party president on Thursday.
Scholtz said it was critical to remember that sentiment can shift — but added that his own sense was that in the next week or two, voters would be cementing their voting choices, though turnout would be determined largely in the final sprint toward election day.
Malema’s parting shot on the Alex protest matter was a warning.
“The Alex protest is not an Alex protest, it’s ANC and it is going to backfire big time on the ANC … Let them go on and instigate it, but they must know that it is going to spread like a wildfire into the municipalities that they are running.
“There is now a campaign to shut down Tshwane. It’s an ANC campaign strategy, it is in their manual … it’s fine, let them do it. It’s going to backfire big time. Before they know it, this country will be on fire.”