On 1 January, 2013, a tornado touched down just south of Sasolburg, Free State. It ripped through shacks and RDP houses, flooding dirt streets and kicking spaza shops into drainage ditches. And while Sasolburg itself was lashed with rain and high winds, the location of Amelia, appended to the larger township of Zamdela, was the centre of the storm’s fury. One woman lost her life instantly, five more died later, and hundreds suffered injuries. Residents refer to the storm as “the tsunami”. Biblically razed, Amelia has been born anew.
A tsunami of a different species is set to sweep through the location on this flawless Saturday morning: the ANC election machine, bearing President Jacob Zuma and his retinue, for a door-to-door and walkabout. This is the edge of Ace Magashule’s Free State, where the unemployed stare through fences at industrial plants so vast they look like cities. Outside the newish multi-purpose hall, an Amelian looks north toward the metal intestines of Sasolburg, where the horizon is ringed with the grime of progress, like a bathtub in a homeless shelter. A heron dives into a marshy field that separates Amelia from the highway beyond, emerging with a beak stuffed with garbage.
What would South Africa’s birds eat if we cleaned this place up?
Beyond the field, however, Amelia’s streets are swept clean, the grass on the verges neatly trimmed. As I walk into the location alongside a colleague, we notice that many RDP houses have been extended and renovated, and of the 3,500 stands in the location—not counting 420 in the squatter camp—there is no obvious sign of the tsunami’s wrath.
There is also no sign of electricity. Last year, shortly after the storm, Zamdela set itself on fire protesting a proposed merger of Metsimaholo municipality with Ngwathe municipality, near Parys. Ngwathe is notorious for being the heart of Premier Magashule’s squalid, non-functioning Cronystan. “The Ngwathe municipality has run itself into the ground and we, as residents of Metsimaholo, do not want to be associated with those thieves,” one resident told the Mail & Guardian. The protest lasted three brutal days, and resulted in at least five deaths.
Photo: Children play on a mound of dirt before ANC leaders arrive in Amelia. (Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick)
Today, dissention has made way for an enforced love-in. We walk over to the finest house on the drag, and start chatting to the owner, an employee at the nearby Eskom plant. Before we can get too deep into conversation, four young men in ANC t-shirts call him over to his fence. Our new friend isn’t wearing regulation yellow, and the subtext is obvious—those who aren’t members in good standing don’t get to speak. “You passed us by on the street,” one of the ANC thuglettes says to us, “and you did not stop. Why?”
Before things turn thoroughly unpleasant, a gentleman named Alex Mara, counsellor and conciliator, limps up to our gathering. The counsellor has two settings: throaty chuckle, and guffaw. “Oh, this is a very, very good place,” he says, chuckling throatily. “The only problem is that we have very many orphans. We haven’t got protestors here. Since the storm came through, our government has been trying all means to deliver us the services. Next, the sewers are ready. We’re going to flush right now!” Enormous guffaw.
Photo: Daniel Mohomane sits in his Amelia shack at a table full of newspapers. (Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick)
The sewers, of course, are not ready. Later, a resident named Daniel Mohomane will invite us into his storm-destroyed zozo, and remind us that Amelia, which saw its first residents in 2004, has been waiting for electricity and sanitation for nine years. He handed us a document printed on Sido Consulting Engineers letterhead, tabling the minutes of a site meeting dated March 18, 2014. Sido won the sewerage tender February 23, 2012, and was supposed to have everything up and running by November of that year. Following another nine-month extension, the pipes were meant to start flowing on 4 April, 2014. That did not happen. “They say they are digging trenches,” Mohomane would say to us, “but where are they?”
“Really,” says Mara, as if anticipating the simmering fury we’d later encounter, “people here are very, very happy. Put it in your book—it is only electricity that is a problem.”
Has this resulted in Amelians losing interest in the ANC?
“The DA here?” asks Mara, puffing out the image of a smiling Zuma stretched across his belly. “Ai, just maybe two or three supporters.” Earth-shattering guffaw.
Mara’s mood turns suddenly sombre. It is now time to make for the orphanage that will be the focus of the morning’s proceedings. The dirt yard is meticulously swept and still crosshatched with rake markings. There is a workout bench, makeshift concrete barbells, and an ancient soccer ball. Four zinc shacks serve as the sleeping quarters, with an outdoor privy. “Just regular people made this place,” Mara tells us. “There is no money, the children have no birth certificates, there are no grants. This is done by the community.”
And before we can settle in: blue lights, BMWs, men with big guns. Show time.
* * *
Aristotle believed that politics belonged to philosophers. As it is currently practised, politics belongs to plumbers, to electricians. In South Africa, if politics is an art, it is a local art, conducted along the expertly soldered connections of a tiny circuit board, or in the shit-clogged sewerage systems of the polity. It is an irony that the ANC, who are expert political plumbers and electricians, can’t actually switch the lights on or get toilets to flush, because to watch their election machine in action is a lesson in political efficacy. There are parties in the West—in those big, scary countries currently running the planet—that could learn much from the ANC. The slow, sometimes bloody stroll from liberation movement to political brand has resulted in something formidable, something monumental—a giant that will take a calamity to fell. The ANC knows how to organise, how to reach. They are, like the storm that ripped through Amelia, a tsunami.
They enter the location in force, but they come quietly, and their strength is hinted at, not declared. Gauteng premier Nomvula Mokonyane is the first to arrive, in her capacity as head of the ANC’s national campaigns committee. “The president is coming for a door-to-door,” she tells me. “This place,” she says, pointing to the orphanage, “is the initiative of ordinary people. It is not a government thing. We want to hear from them.”
I note that the shacks appear to be a markedly different set up from, say, the president’s newly renovated digs in Nkandla.
“People are worried about their day-to-day issues,” says Mokonyane, evenly. “Where Nkandla arises, people just want clarity. Elections are about fun. We are having fun, although sometimes it makes you realise you have to do more.”
“President Zuma, that man is highly charged! Like any commander of the troops, he remains positive. He knows what to do—he is part of what is happening, the everyday decisions. He is the last who can be despondent.”
So no-one is panicking?
“No! No!” Calmly, Mokonyane sends an SMS on her Samsung.
I tell her that she looks fantastic, and I mean it. Atop her head is an ANC-branded ball-cap that looks as if it were carved from a giant Titleist golf ball. Does any political party in the world have merch anywhere near this dope-ass?
“You know,” she says, “when you campaign, you must adapt. We’re going to be with young people today, and I can’t go and meet them wearing a doek!” A pause. “You really like this look?”
I do. I do.
“Ah, thank you.” Mokonyane’s grin has enough wattage to run Amelia’s electricity for a month.
Now, a convoy moves swiftly toward the orphanage. SUVs stop in clouds of dust, disgorging men with wires in their ears. After a few moments, when the singing and the ululations reach a crescendo, Jacob Zuma steps slowly out of a black BMW 7-series. In his old-man slacks and ANC leather jacket, he looks not just exhausted but completely wiped out, like a hard drive with its data dumped. He greets counselor Mara, and they share a joke. Then he is guided into the dark of the orphanage, a huge security hack placing a hand over the jagged piece of zinc that serves as the lintel, so that the president doesn’t scratch his head.
Photo: An elderly woman cries as she talks to Zuma in Amelia. (Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick)
Inside, Jacob Zuma becomes Jacob Zuma, Man of the People. He sits on a filthy bench yanked from a mini-bus taxi, between the old woman who runs the orphanage and an ANC hack with an armful of t-shirts. He listens, punctuating the woman’s sentences with deep, basso “mm-hmms”. His retinue, with their hints of bling—Chanel sunglasses here, Louis Vuitton ball-cap there—stand back and leave him to it. It’s like this orphanage and its manifold miseries are the centre of South African domestic policy, which, for the moment, I suppose, they are.
After ten minutes or so, Zuma is ushered back into the sun and sits on an upturned bucket with a second old woman. They chat; he throws back his head and offers a signature chuckle. And then, in the way of politicians since the advent of representative democracy, he bends down to speak to children and hugs them to his breast.
With seamless efficiency, Zuma, under cover of an umbrella, is guided onto the streets of Amelia. A trail of press, security, ANC supporters. The most powerful man in Africa waves to bemused residents gazing out from their houses along the main drag—houses that look curiously too perfect, as if a Hollywood set designer had swept through Amelia, burnishing the zinc and fluffing up the roosters’ feathers. [Or was it Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin? – Ed] We stop to speak with a woman in a pink dressing gown and sunhat, who shows Zuma inside her home and complains about the leaks. He offers an “mm-hmm” when his eye is guided up to a gap in the zinc above him.
Photo: Zuma listens to the concerns of residents inside a Zamdela orphanage. (Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick)
Home repair. A loaded subject, no? At the penultimate stop, Zuma enters the yard of a RDP dwelling belonging to Johannes Majola, his wife and two children. Majola was awarded this house several years ago, but it was slammed into nothingness by the storm. He is a contract worker at Sasol, he says, and has earned enough to build an extension on to his home. Workers in dust-covered ANC shirts are ordered by security to drop their trowels. They do so in mute shock.
“Oh,” says President Zuma, gazing at the growing structure, “that’s very good. Very good. Well done. Well done.”
When Zuma walks off, I ask Majola if it crossed his mind that Zuma has also recently and successfully renovated his home. He smiles at me.
“I was thinking that,” says Majola.
You just can’t make this shit up.
* * *
The dream may be dead, but the machine endures, whirring away with is own inner logic and genius. This door-to-door is one of dozens that Zuma has performed and will perform over the course of the 2014 election campaign. Such events play to his strengths—his ability to solder those tiny connections on the political circuit board. Anyone dismissing the ruling party as has-beens—anyone who mistakes their larger blunders for death blows—has forgotten that the ANC built a struggle party house to house, person by person, for 80 years before winning their first election by a landslide. Yes, Amelia is all political theatre. But Jacob Zuma’s constituency knows that he has heard their problems. They are able to believe that he takes those problems into consideration when he governs, because he has been inside their homes and seen how they live.
Unfortunately, Amelia is governed by a different set of priorities. There are no lights and no toilets because the machinery of governance, as opposed to the machinery of campaigning, has long ago ceased to function. Amelia exists within a system of patronage that President Zuma has only extended, and one does wonder what he thinks when he walks these streets, and stares up at a flawless blue sky through the gaps in the roofs of the houses his government has built. Power has taken him from the people; he is beholden to other forces.
Today is a day to pretend.
For the faithful, this was a reminder that the ANC is a home. The ruling party came into Amelia like a yellow sunburst, and like any sunburst, they leave a burn on the retina.
Fifty minutes after arriving, however, Zuma is gone in a cloud of dust, blue lights flashing, while Amelia inhales, exhales, and goes back to the difficult business of existing. These citizens are, after all, used to tornados touching down and then leaving. DM
Main photo: Zuma laughs next to the Free State premier Ace Magashule (left) and an Amelia resident. (Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick)
Penguins push other penguins into the water to check if it is free of predators.