HANNIBAL ELECTOR: How Bekkersdal became a symbol of everything that's wrong with South Africa
The contested location of Bekkersdal has become something of a shorthand for South Africa’s democratic-era failures. But what makes Bekkersdal special? Why has it become so emblematic? And when everyone is performing for the cameras, what is true, what is false, and what do we learn from the fray? RICHARD POPLAK drinks at Joe’s Tavern in order to find out why ANC officials get stoned when they visit – and not in a good way.
Bekkersdal. A circle of charred rubber and glass on a patch of asphalt. A shredded South African flag hanging from barbed wire. Shack leaning on shack leaning into an empty field pocked with garbage dumps. If you’re looking for ground zero of the “service delivery” debacle in this country, you’ll find it here: a dusty, flat, rubbish strewn mess located roughly twenty kilometres south of Soweto, and four billion light years west of Nelson Mandela’s Rainbow Nation. Since November of last year, the township has intermittently flared up with photogenic mayhem—tyres burning in the streets, youth toyi-toyiing with weapons in hand, buildings Molotov cocktailed into ash. Bekkersdal does not feel like a community in progress; it is not the child of a “new democracy”, as the New York Times tends to describe this country. The township is not a semi-colon, but a full stop.
In press report after television guest appearance, the township has become a stand-in for the failures of the past twenty years—shacks instead of houses, booze instead of jobs, patronage instead of politics. In Joe’s Tavern, where a sample group of Bekkersdal’s young and old come together to get wasted on a Sunday afternoon, everyone is preternaturally aware of their value as a sample group. In other words, Bekkersdalians realise that their antics with petrol bombs and burning tires have become a media meme, and their subsequent behaviour reflects that knowledge. No one in Joe’s knows whether a “real” Bekkersdal exists anymore, or if one ever did. In a closed loop of violent performance, violent reaction, awesome TV footage and government press release, terms like “service delivery”—whatever that actually means—have taken on a solidity that applies to nothing else in the community, which is constantly in flux, and constantly unrealised.
“Let me explain,” says Patrick Machala, a 30-year-old piece worker, as we sit on plastic chairs around a Stonehenge-like assembly of Hansa bottles in the tavern’s airy, open courtyard. “You see, we have our traditions. [Westonaria Executive Mayor] Nonkoliso Tundzi is very traditional. She says that she will not speak with boys. But how can she know that I am a boy, that I have not had my initiation. I am a man. How can she say I am a boy?”
Communication between Bekkersdal’s mayor, the ward councillors and residents has become a comedy of dysfunction—in place of governance and citizenship exists a series of performances. Tundzi performs the role of traditional leader/government official; the community performs the role of violent dispossessed underclass; Bekkersdal functions as the much-abused stage set for their ministrations.
Nonetheless, the problems are real, even if the means of solving them are fake. Thabang Lebogo, seated alongside Patrick and equally as adept with a Hansa bottle, describes the issues in Bekkersdal as three-fold: no basic services; constant fiddling with the Reconstruction and Development Plan (RDP) housing lists; gangsterism. But the way Thabang describes it, all three are interconnected, slithering over each other like snakes at a reptile orgy.
“In the shacks we are doing noyoka noyakaza—stealing the electricity from this side,” says Thabang, pointing to the brick houses over Joe’s wall. Insofar as Bekkersdal has any spatial coherence, it is cut through by a main drag, on one side of which are shacks, and on the other side RDP housing. The electricity theft is itself a mini-industry—one of those marvelous acts of informal entrepreneurship Africa watchers tend to write books about—and those who are at the helm of noyoka noyakaza are understandably reluctant to have their profits curtailed by efficient delivery. Similarly, water delivery and garbage collection, now haphazardly privatised, would suffer if Bekkersdal were to resemble, say, an eighteenth century peasant village in Romania, rather than the complete clusterfuck it is now.
“Why are our parents, who have waited since 1994, still waiting for a house, when someone comes here in 2009 and gets a house like this?” asks Patrick, snapping his fingers. “It is corruption. The ANC is using our parents’ money to jail Malema, and nothing else.” This is a standard complaint across the country, and it makes its share of headlines. What doesn’t make headlines is the pervasive crime that rips through these communities, much of it with ad hoc political connections. Last Friday, the leader of the Calabash gang, name of Paulos, was killed in the street in front of his house, beaten to death by members of the rival Creatures gang. Watched by dozens, it’s the kind of thing that passes for entertainment around here. But the lads at Joe’s insist that the gangs are in part populated by young members of the Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who combine standard gangster activities—drugs, maiming, leaning against cars—with political campaigning.
That said, among the patrons of Joe’s, the EFF is the party of choice. “I don’t know why they to took Malema out of the ANC,” says Patrick. “That was a big, big mistake. We supported Zuma through Malema. We know that he raped, but we supported him. So now, the only thing we can do is support EFF.”
Which is not everybody’s feeling. Walter Thene has recently moved here from Cape Town. “Yes, I am a new guy here. Cape Town—oh, I love that place. Even the township is clean. Helen Zille, that lady? I love her.” Nonetheless, she will not receive an X at the ballot box. “Nah, no more voting. Why?”
If there is no consensus in Joe’s, it’s mostly because of the acknowledgement that there are few possible solutions short of a full-scale reset. Raze the joint to the ground, say the drinkers, and bring in the bricks for rebuilding from far away. One young man, who does not want his name used, has become a master of the sound bite, and a professional at presenting Bekkersdal as a representative catastrophe. “I know you are here for a story,” he says. “So let me say this…” His face hardens, and he begins: “We are going to eat each other in this location. Fuck the ANC, fuck ANC companies.” He tells me that in order to get a job at the nearby mines, he must slide R5,000 into his CV. “If I can’t work, where do I get R5,000? That is fifty R100 bills. And if I can’t get R5,000, I can’t work? What comes next, my friend?”
A perfect circle. The sun is moving its way across Joe’s courtyard, as it does every Sunday afternoon, and most of the patrons are becoming post-verbal. A saunter into the streets beyond the walls reveals an environment that is certainly wretched, but no worse than any number of communities throughout the country. Bekkersdal’s notoriety is largely derived from the fact that it is close to the country’s media centre—a quick 40-minute drive from Johannesburg with camera gear in tow. What else explains the United Democratic Movement billboards, and the small march that makes its way through town? To call Bantu Holomisa’s outfit a non-factor in these elections is an understatement. But here they are, in the taxi-ranks, singing songs—fifty souls led by a man in a makeshift wheelchair, who know there will be a camera pointed at them at some stage of their wanderings.
Behind the march, the Paul Nel Hall, which once functioned as a community centre, stands in ruins. The hall was famously burned down in protests several months ago, and it is in the process of beings stripped to a shell. Inside, it is filled with the rubbish that gets cycled around Bekkersdal by collectors who get the joke. The walls are now decorated with chalk graffiti—a Johannesburg cityscape populated by devils and aliens and a man with a forked tongue. The floor has recently been used as a toilet.
The destruction makes me think of something else that was discussed at Joe’s—the fact that Bekkersdal has become incapable of helping itself. The protests aren’t really protests, but increasingly ritualised displays of anger that are ends in themselves. Last week, when ANC representatives visited the location, they were pelted with stones. "If people want to vote, let them go vote, but [they] must vote out the ruling party. We can see the ANC is arrogant and use force to coerce us into voting for them,” said Thabang Wesi, leader of the Concerned Residents of Bekkersdal Committee.
“Yes, the committee tries to help, but no, we don’t organise,” said Patrick, sipping on a Hansa, when I asked him if Bekkersdal’s residents have a solution for Bekkersdal. The situation here has become a performance for which no awards will be given. The anger destroys the town, the destruction is photographed, the photographs define the country, and the politicians vow to fix the rot. But what we all seem to be missing is that Bekkersdal represents a complete meltdown that reaches back into centuries of exploitation, and to “fix” it means fixing ourselves, remodelling not only our political culture, but our role as citizens in this country the maps call “South Africa”.
Nothing offered by anyone in this election will heal Bekkersdal, because the township has become a stage, the residents and politicians merely players. The real conversation has yet to start, because the competing soliloquies have not yet been performed. And as for the final curtain, the scene that presages must befit what has come before. It will be one of fire. DM
Additional reporting by B.C. Simelane
Photo: A man gestures to the police (not in picture) during violent service delivery protests in Bekkersdal, west of Johannesburg October 25, 2013. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko