As South Africa votes, this shanty town explains anger at the ANC

With elections today, Bekkersdal is a no-go zone for politicians from the African National Congress. Residents say they are not part of the 'good story' the ANC claims for the nation. 

Women wave as South African president and leader of the African National Congress (ANC), Jacob Zuma, arrives to cast his vote in Ntolwane, rural KwaZulu Natal province, South Africa, Wednesday May, 7, 2014. The country goes to the polls in the fifth democratic elections since the end of apartheid in 1994.

In this shanty town one hour outside Johannesburg, everything is filthy.

Water taps are shared between 20 blocks of cramped housing. The most popular game for young children is seeing who makes the biggest splash with rocks thrown in open sewers. Large rats scamper through the piles of rubbish that seem constantly banked up at the end of every unpaved lane.

Today South Africans across the country go to the polls to elect their national and provincial governments.

But while the ruling African National Congress will doubtless retain its 20-year grip on power, disaffection is building. Anger is rising over the ANC's failure to tackle poverty or to stamp out corruption in its ranks after being so long in power. And few places represent this anger and failure more than the town of Bekkersdal.

The town has all the problems associated with "service delivery," as it is known -- of delivering basics like decent electricity, water and plumbing. The town has crime problems, much of it petty theft to fund drug habits. 

“Even when you hang your clothes out to dry, you have to watch them," says Boitumelo Nkuna, a local community leader. Otherwise, "they will be [stolen] to sell and buy nyaope [a cocktail of marijuana, low-grade heroin and ground-up HIV pills].

For weeks in the South African election run up, Bekkersdal’s citizens have, like others around the country, been bombarded with party pamphlets and visits by beaming politicians.

But there’s one party that residents won’t tolerate – the ruling ANC. The ANC is the party legitimized and championed by South African hero Nelson Mandela. Yet the ANC brand has deteriorated to such a degree that when ANC provincial leaders risked campaigning here in March, they were greeted with brickbats and burning tires, prompting their bodyguards to open fire with live ammunition.

Bekkersdal citizens considered that event, according to Mr. Nkuna, as their own “Marikana,” a reference to the shooting by troops of 34 striking miners in August 2012 in the town of Marikana, a case where the ANC appeared to be involved. However, in the Bekkersdal instance, no one was killed.

No-go zone

Since then, Bekkersdal has become a virtual no-go zone for the ANC ruling party. Its premier in the region, Nomvula Mokonyane, has responded that she doesn’t even want the community's “dirty votes.”

Nkuna says that with unemployment in the community at 80 per cent, and with few basic amenities like running water, rubbish collection or electricity, the ANC has no right to complain about the reception it gets.

“The ANC says on its election posters it has ‘a good story to tell.’ But what about us? Are we part of that good story? We have been abandoned,” says the articulate young man, who trained to be an accountant but has no prospect of work. 

Nkuna is not alone in his disillusionment. While there’s little doubt the ANC will be voted back into office for its fifth straight term on May 7, few within the monolithic party dispute that its share of the vote will drop. They even admit they could lose control of the powerhouse Gauteng province that is home to Johannesburg and Pretoria, the capital. 

To some extent, the waning support is inevitable for one of Africa’s longest-serving liberation parties. ANC president Jacob Zuma argues that it could never have reversed apartheid’s legacy quickly enough for its impatient population.

Even so, the noisy optimism of the ANC in this campaign season is not eclipsing a widespread frustration at the slow pace of change in South Africa, which has one of the biggest wealth gaps in the world.

The ANC government has rolled out social grants to 15 million people. But with half of young 18- to- 24 year-olds absent from education, employment or training, a "lost generation" has been created that will never pay the taxes needed to fund a growing social security bill.

The ANC has had genuine success in getting children into school, in boosting access to power and running water in some places, and of maintaining economic growth and providing drugs to slow the progression of HIV to Aids. It has built millions of apartments and houses. 

Crime, corruption

But the number of informal shack dwellings in the country has increased. The notoriously violent crime rates have turned upwards after years of decline. And chronic and largely unchallenged government corruption has seen public funds that might have changed lives siphoned off to elites. 

Since November 2013, support for the ANC has dropped by a fifth -- to as low as 53 percent of voters. The polling firm Ipsos blames the drop on factors including fury about the police shooting at Marikana and the recent $19 million in taxpayers’ money spent on President Zuma’s private home in Nkandla, in the KwaZulu Natal region. 

Although the ANC's share of the vote has improved slightly in polls this month, it is still thought that it could dip below 60 per cent for the first since 1994 when the ANC came to power.

This will be the first election in which the so-called “born free” generation -- that never knew apartheid -- are eligible to vote. But a lack of inspiring choices means that just over a third of them have bothered to register.

Instead, ordinary born-frees are joining a growing number of violent protests that operate in a destructive cycle -- where police often respond with a level of force that results in deaths and serious injuries, and that makes local folks even angrier.

In Bekkersdal, home to 150,000 people, the government pledged about $100 million for social projects including a brick factory, a sports stadium and an information center that served also as job-search agency. 

Large amounts of that allocated money seems to have disappeared from the public coffers. The brick factory never opened. The only sign of a new stadium is two rusting goal posts and a roofless clubhouse sitting on a patch of open land.

Last year, the partly built information center was burned to the ground by angry locals during riots.

Volunteer carer

Among those let down by the collapse of the ANC’s investment in Bekkersdal is Antonia Makereke, a trained nurse who scrapes a living as a volunteer community care worker whose only compensation is paid expenses.

Each evening, Ms. Makereke arranges a torn pink mattress on the floor of her two-roomed tin shack before helping her elderly mother to the makeshift bed.

She kisses her children and grandchildren sleeping on sofas nearby goodnight, fastens a small padlock to her door to deter the local drug addicts, and snuffs out her paraffin lamp.   

Cooking in the Makereke home takes place on a Primus or paraffin stove that is illuminated by rays of sun that pierce both chinks in the walls and bedsheets hung up to keep out the cold as winter approaches in this part of the planet.

On the wall is a 2014 calendar featuring a South African flag and a picture of Nelson Mandela. Next to it is pasted a tattered photograph of Makereke in her nursing graduation gown.

In another corner is an old television projecting a fuzzy image of a popular soap opera and a bare light bulb plugged into a dangling, sooty socket.

Asked if she has power, Makereke looks shamefaced and says a “kind neighbor” tapped her in to an illegal connection he rigged up via cables that trail over the nearby road.

Twenty years ago, Makereke remembers, she joined the joyful queues that formed across South Africa before sunrise to cast her first vote as a black citizen of a new, full democracy that included her.

Like more than 12 million of her fellow countrymen, she excitedly put her cross in the box of Nelson Mandela’s ANC which pledged to build a “better life for all” after the inhumane treatment of blacks by whites during apartheid.

But today, as she goes to the polls again, she plans to abandon the party that carried her dreams, and will vote instead for the opposition Democratic Alliance.

“Democracy came but nothing changed here,” says Makereke. “I’m voting DA but I’m not sure it will make a difference. These people promise us things when they want us to vote for them. But the ANC made the promises too and did nothing."

Presidential spending

Gwede Mantashe, the ANC national Secretary General, said recently that the spending on Zuma’s home in Nkandla was simply a media obsession that meant little to ordinary people.

But in Bekkersdal, it appears to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Each person recites exactly how much was spent on the president’s cattle pens, swimming pool, private school and health clinic.

Thuli Madonsela, the official public watchdog who exposed Zuma and his cronies’ profligacy in a recent, damning report, is a hero here. 

“I can’t say the name of that place, it makes me crazy,” says Sylvia Mantshupi, who holds a carpentry diploma she can find no use for. “I don’t have a job so I can’t afford to buy my son shoes.”

She points to an unsmiling, dusty little boy who clutches her lower leg. “We paid for a playground for Zuma's kids, but our kids play among rats and rubbish.”

Far from going to their local ANC representative to complain about the squalid conditions, locals stay away. They are afraid of the two security guards paid to guard his home, which is hidden behind high, whitewashed walls topped with razor wire and plastered with ANC posters.

They refuse to point out the house by foot, saying the party official would arrange for them and their families to be “shot.”

“He’s the biggest tsotsi (gangster) here,” one said. “He isn’t from here. The ANC put him here but we never see him. Most of them have big houses elsewhere and only come here from time to time.”

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