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31 October 2014 13:48 (South Africa)
South Africa

HANNIBAL ELECTOR: Bekkersdal Redux – where the election goes to die

  • Richard Poplak
  • South Africa
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The ruling party was not chased out of the contested, occasionally violence-ridden community of Bekkersdal. But nor was it embraced. Could this grim non-event be the story of the 2014 election? By RICHARD POPLAK.

A story of trickle-down economics in the age of South African Freedom.

The location of Bekkersdal, like everywhere else, is divided between the haves and have-nots. The haves—relative designation, you understand—live in the formal part of the location, with RDP houses electrified by electricity, sanitised by sanitation. Meanwhile, the have-nots inhabit a larger universe of mkukus, or shacks, all of which are “off the grid”, as the folks at Africa Burn like to say. This latter part of Bekkersdal is entirely unserviced by anything so much as a Victorian-era mod con, therefore one encounters pitted dirt roads, bucket latrines, and the rustic charms of yesteryear.

You’d imagine that everyone in the shack section of Bekkersdal is broke and jobless, and you’d be largely correct. But there are enough workingmen and women among their number to count as a chunky statistic—folks who aren’t eligible for an RDP residence, and who don’t quite have the income to relocate their shack to the location proper. These people are trapped by circumstance. If they move, they’ll likely lose their job in the nearby mines. And if they stay, they’ll likely die in their mkuku. There are absolutely no options available to them. They wake up in the morning and inhale the fumes pouring from the tailpipe of the South African economy, a fact that doesn’t contribute to a pleasant collective disposition. The people of Bekkersdal are angry, and they occasionally set things on fire in order to telegraph that rage to their municipal leadership, who aren’t technically their leadership, because the people of the mkukus don’t exist.

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Photo: At a Bekkersdal tuckshop, a man stands next to a poster for the ANC’s Siyanqoba rally. (Greg Nicolson)

Although in the past it has been occasionally convenient to offer promises to these non-people, none of those promises have come to pass. And so there are sewerage pipes that run from the location past the stadium that is said to have cost R40 million, but is just an empty field with goalposts made out of eucalyptus tree wood, past a dusty rubbish-strewn field which acts as an open air market, and into the streets of the shantytown. In this way, the poorest of Bekkersdal literally get crapped on by their more established peers.

Like I said, trickle-down economics in the age of South African Freedom.

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Photo: Children in ANC t-shirts ride in a bakkie after the ANC’s rally in Bekkersdal.

Over the course of the past year, Bekkersdal has functioned as something of a shorthand for the “service delivery protests” that have touched down throughout South Africa like so many windborne calamities. Observed carefully, some of the grievances overlap—i.e. please don’t pipe sewerage into my house!—while others are indelibly local. In Bekkersdal’s case, one of the major complaints is this one: slap bang in the middle of Gauteng’s economic engine, when a Bekkersdalian arrives at the Human Resources department of a gold mine with CV in hand, he or she is expected to proffer R3,000 in cash in order to get even a whiff of a job opportunity. For a hopeful without money on account of joblessness, that’s not really an option. Bekkersdalians know that the HR departments are connected to the unions, the unions to local government, the local government to a fellow called Jacob Zuma. They may share problems with a location in the Northern Cape, but their local hell has its own curious geography.

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Photo: A group of young dancers in Bekkersdal in ANC regalia. (Greg Nicolson)

Knowing all of this, I’ve dropped into Bekkersdal several times over the course of this election campaign, drunk in the taverns, walked the streets, heard the same old story in a billion different grammatical configurations. So last weekend, on a blistering autumn Saturday, I wanted to know what the residents of Bekkersdal would do when the ANC rolled Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela into town. Winnie is one of the few ANC stalwarts who have survived the reputation-evisceration that has occurred here since Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane last year said that the ANC didn’t require Bekkersdal’s “dirty votes”.

Before Winnie arrived, however, Bekkersdal was granted a visit from the Ministers of the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security Cluster (JCPS), who had been touring the country’s hotspots as a sort of warning. Whether they were pre-booking refrigerated morgue trucks for Election Day the ministers would not say, but they were sober and severe and backed up in force by Nyalas and the coppers within them. They left quickly, and why not? This location, like every location, was designed by the previous regime to be easily policed.

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Photo: Gauteng ANC Secretary David Makhura addresses the Bekkersdal crowd with dignitaries like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela sitting behind him. (Greg Nicolson)

Bekkersdal, it turns out, did nothing much at all. Yes, there were small contingents of ANC supporters gathered in backroom taverns, getting blitzed, singing Malibongwe. But out in the “stadium”, where the sky stretched over us in a brilliant blue arch, a gathering of about 500 listless residents gathered to welcome the mother of the nation and her fellow partisans. Oh, it was grim. Winnie, still in her mourning regalia, was motionless as a corpse, her face impassive and slack—a figurehead in a party leaning heavily on figureheads.

It felt like a wake. With regard to the fact that Winnie would not speak, “she is still in mourning, and it is not possible for her to speak to you according to our culture.” (“Our” culture? The broad church narrows when it needs to). Those that spoke for her insisted that the ANC wanted the best for Bekkersdal, that local government would reform, that corruption would be eradicated, and that the future was bright and beautiful. “We understand,” said one of the hacks, “that local government in the West Rand cannot move this community forward unless they are fundamentally re-organised.”

But a man named Ernest Mtumi wasn’t buying it. Mtumi lives in a mkuku that occasionally fills up with his neighbours’ effluent, and although he works as a health and safety officer at Sibanye Mine, his four children preclude him from renting in the location, because no one wants kids tearing about their property. When I asked Mtumi whether he’d benefitted from the last twenty years, he was unequivocal. “Nothing, nothing, nothing. These empty promises have put us very, very down. We were not expecting this life.”

But Mtumi is not being honest, or not entirely so. Because there are parts of his life that have improved, and massively so. When I asked him who he’d vote for, he said, “Good question.”

To which I replied, “Thank you.”

Then he said, “I’ve been a mineworker since 1978, and there has been a big change. And since that time, the ANC has done a lot. I was a slave for some years. Now I have rights and powers to say, ‘No!’ Without any fear. Even to my manager, if he is wrong, I can say, ‘No!’ Because of the ANC, somewhere, somehow, there have been changes.”

All the sleaze, all the dead bodies, all the negligence, all the idiocy, wiped away by the fact that Mtumi’s circumstances are better in some ways, and worse in others. AKA different. All he appeared to be afraid of was going backwards. “Behind Zille,” he told me, “is danger. Behind her, we are going back, back, back. We’ll be double-slaves than before.”

I’ve had this conversation, in one form or another, dozens of times over the course of the 2014 election campaign. Am I insisting that this dialogue explains a country? No. But I am suggesting that it might. It is not impossible for a person to hold two mutually eradicating positions on a single issue: one rational, one emotional. It’s the manufacturers’ defect built into our species. The party that gave millions their dignity as humans has not allowed them their dignity as participants. But the first step in our journey, however glorious, was the easy part. This next part is not so simple. But the way I see it, something changes, or Bekkersdalians will come get what’s theirs by means other than their local residents association.

I don’t think the election will be decided in places like this one, because South Africa is more than the sum of its mkukus. But Bekkersdal is where the South African economic model as it has been assembled—or, rather, maintained— by the ANC has failed. There has been a concerted community effort to boycott the election, and Mtumi may not get close enough to the polls to cast a vote. But as a kid in a tavern told me, “We are just tired of fighting here.” The exhaustion may hold through May 7, but it won’t last forever.

One just has to stroll through the lesser parts of Bekkersdal to understand that the revolution has long ago begun, not because anyone wanted it to, but because it had to. Perhaps South Africa is about to be reminded of another truism: shit may trickle down. But blood tends to trickle up. DM

Photo: A man arms himself with a stick to defend a car from people desperate for ANC t-shirts. (Greg Nicolson)

  • Richard Poplak
  • South Africa


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