Bekkersdal: A flashpoint exposing the ANC's weaknesses
Bekkersdal has been a key protest flashpoint since residents closed the streets last year demanding basic services and the resignation of officials they viewed as corrupt. When the ANC's Gauteng MECs were besieged during a visit last week the area became a focus for the upcoming elections. GREG NICOLSON & BHEKI SIMELANE asked residents what they think.
"Fuck the ANC,” said a rock drill operator who lives in Bekkersdal, leaning in as he spoke. “Fuck the headquarters, the chairman,” he continued. The mineworker didn't want to be named: “I want to live for another 20 years. I don't want my house burnt down,” he said. “They're eating money... There are two parties here people care about – the DA and the EFF.” He supported the recent attacks on provincial ANC officials visiting Bekkersdal (if he wasn't working he would have joined them, he says) because he believes the party, starting with Westonaria Mayor Nonkoliso Tundzi, is selfish and corrupt.
Last Thursday, a delegation of ANC Gauteng MECs, Ntombi Mekgwe, Eric Xayiya, Brian Hlongwa and West Rand District Municipality Mayor, Mpho Nawa, tried to visit Bekkersdal, which has recently been in the news because of violent service delivery protests as well as Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane’s comment to residents that the ANC doesn't want their “dirty votes”.
Residents reportedly learned about the impending visit on social media and met the delegation by pelting stones and burning tires. According to multiple news reports, the politicians’ bodyguards used live ammunition to scare off the protesting crowd.
The official government line is that the protest is about a development programme focusing on housing, but according to the Bekkersdal mineworker, grievances run much deeper.
Not enough areas are electrified, toilets get full and aren't emptied and garbage and sewerage are common features in the street. The mayor, he alleges, is making money and sending it back to her home province, the Eastern Cape. Many of the residents seem either unemployed or in mining related jobs and both situations also come with their own grievances.
Sibongile Mtshazi, also employed in the mines, has a different attitude. He argued that the community is too dependent on handouts without focusing on trying to improve their own circumstances. People, he said, needed to work hard, be responsible and realise that managing finances is difficult. Yet, at the same time, he complained about his poor living conditions, the lack of sanitation and decent housing.
Bekkersdal residents have been protesting to have basic services delivered (their first demand is to have the municipality leadership dissolved) but speaking to some in the aftermath of the incident during which the ANC delegation was attacked, it is clear that a host of other issues is attached to the ongoing violence.
Mahlamulo Khumalo, a 20-year-old proud EFF member, said since the community hall had been burnt down and the gymnasium next to it destroyed, there had been no attempts by officials to guard what remained of the building from further vandalism. Khumalo said some community members continued to strip the unguarded buildings, escalating the costs for future repairs. The buildings are now disused, the hall full of trash, its walls covered in graffiti.
Khumalo added that the EFF had a “huge” following in Bekkersdal and that the conduct of ANC officials in response to the turmoil did not help. Khumalo and a few of his friends who were enjoying beers at Joe's tavern in Ward 8 said they were still furious at Mokonyane for labelling their votes “dirty” during her visit to the area last year.
Levels of corruption and nepotism have, according to residents, reached unprecedented levels. ANC mayors and councillors are accused of hiring relatives and friends and not granting learnerships on merit.
Some community members maintain that part of R1.2 billion that had been set aside for development of the area had been embezzled. The allegations first arose during service delivery protests last year and it has become increasingly clear that this is an issue that has angered residents.
The funds are said to have been approved by Mbazima Shilowa when he was Gauteng Premier between 1999 and 2008. The Auditor General decided this week to set up a task team to investigate the allegations.
This year has seen particularly violent service delivery protests in Gauteng and the provincial legislature set up a task team in February to urgently address the issue. “If community members are unhappy with any aspect of service delivery, be it the pace or the quality of services they should take these up with the ward councillor, if they do not get any assistance, they should escalate the matter to the municipality, then the Department of Cooperative Governance. If these too do not yield any positive results, they must lodge a complaint with the Premier's Office through the Premier's hotline on 0860 011000,” said a press release.
Wiseman Gcwalangoeuthi, a United Democratic Movement organiser who was leading a small march through Bekkersdal on Sunday encouraging voters, said his party doesn't have the same problems as the ANC in the area. “The ANC have 20 years here and it hasn't changed,” he said, referring to issues of rubbish on the streets and sanitation problems.
Commenting on evidence that those guarding ANC leaders on Thursday fired live ammunition, the DA's Mmusi Maimane referred to recent deaths at protests and said, “As protests break out daily in Gauteng it seems we are now living under the rule of bullets... Premier Mokonyane must act without delay to establish an inquiry that will lead to the facts around yesterday’s use of live ammunition in Bekkersdal.”
It was reported that despite hostility towards the ANC, the party wanted to campaign in Bekkersdal so that it would not become a “no go” area. In his State of the Nation address, President Zuma rejected criticism that service delivery protests meant the ANC is failing.
Writing in his capacity as Deputy Secretary General of the South African Communist Party, Jeremy Cronin expanded on the idea pointing to the “relative deprivation”of marginalised areas angry about the lack of government-provided basic services compared with adjacent areas that had seen development.
Looking at three hot spots, Bekkersdal, Mothutlung and Bronkhorstspruit, Cronin mentions research that reveals that it is the control over resources and access to money that leads to violent protests.
“While the immediate issues were different in the three townships - electricity billing, water shortages, a steep hike in grave fees - in every case, competing ANC factions linked to former councillors and now out of favour, local small businesses, were behind the mobilisation of angry youth. In deeply frustrated communities, allegations - well-founded or not - of corruption and misspending easily gain traction. And so, once again, it's not so much the absence of services but desperate competition over who controls their allocation that triggers protest,” writes Cronin.
Cronin’s analysis holds weight, but with residents in Bekkersdal showing outright hostility towards the ANC, it is not difficult to calculate that this will certainly harm the party at the polls. DM
Photo: UDM supporters campaign in Bekkersdal on Sunday, 16 March 2014. (Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick)