RICHARD POPLAK travels from Marikana to Bekkersdal to a township in Springs, watching the elections unfold. Democracy is a funny thing, especially when the army has been called in to enforce it.
Wonderkop, North West, 25.669°S 27.524°E
Julius Malema leans in, gives me a big grin, says, “I will win”, and is hustled into his Mercedes van by two of his three big, white bodyguards. The muscle is interesting. They’re a recent addition to the EFF rolling circus, which has arrived in Wonderkop, adjacent to Marikana, for the last stop on a campaign trail that officially kicked off here in October of last year. These boys are pros, SAS-slick, the entire crowd of 1,500 Fighters smeared across the convex curve of their wraparound shades. They are an announcement, these bodyguards. Only months ago Julius Malema was a joke, a has-been. Now, white men concealing Glocks in their badly-cut bar mitzvah suits keep him safe from both his enemies, and his friends.
In the vast clearing between the Lonmin platinum smelter and the Wonderkop power transformers, within site of the koppie around which 34 men lost their lives in democratic South Africa’s first great massacre, the Economic Freedom Fighters have chosen to hold their closing rally. The road that leads from the massacre site is lined with rubbish fossilised into sundried loam, picked at by goats and hogs and curs. Mid afternoon, and schoolchildren clog the road. Their satchels are bigger than they are.
In Marikana, last October, a star was born. “You are my parents,” Juju said to the crowd during his triumphant return. “And I am your son. We decided on coming here today, because Marikana is where we started,” claimed Juju. “We came to you to thank you for having confidence, for giving energy for us. They call you criminals, but you are the people I wanted to come to, because you are my parents.”
On 16 August 2012, when miners wrapped in magic blankets and bearing fighting sticks faced off against an army of SAPS backed up by a refrigerated mortuary truck, the results were as tragic as they were inevitable. Marikana represented the total breakdown of Nelson Mandela’s Rainbow thing. The National Union of Mineworkers, heavily affiliated with the ANC, in turn in bed with Lonmin plc., failed to address the demands of a contingent of miners who wanted their pay tripled and their community to register some benefits from the smelters and mines within sight of their shacks.
That, of course, is not how capitalism works, at least not around these parts. Being South African, the miners learned, is a zero-sum game. When the man who is now deputy president of the ANC—a man who happens to own a chunk of Lonmin’s shares through one of his numerous BEE outfits—urged to cops and the mining minister to pretend that Marikana was a game of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, you know that you’re no longer in a country but a video game console, and the guys at the controls want to see your head splat open like a ketchup sachet.
Now, Lonmin is dead as the new strike enters its 103rd day. Julius Malema and the EFF have included the miners’ demand for a R12,500 monthly pay packet in their manifesto. They have made Marikana their lodestar. “Imagine if this community owned 10 percent in that mine. There won’t be a strike,” said Malema, pointing to the smelter. “We get dividends on top of the salaries. That’s what nationalisation means. It’s only in South Africa that people don’t benefit from the mines.”
When Julius spoke these words, he was perched on the edge of the EFF party truck, which has crisscrossed Gauteng and its environs many dozens of times. I was at the vehicle’s inauguration in a settlement in Soweto—it was bright and shiny and new. Now it looks beaten up and used. Five months of campaigning, of a country revealing itself to itself. The end of an election campaign is like the final moments of a domestic spat—you sit there in the miasma of all the terrible things that have been said, and wonder how the hell to move forward.
Juju wants to move forward alone. “They don’t care about you, hai, if anyone is confused about that we can’t help you,” he said. His EFF golf shirt-type garment was stained, his eyes red-rimmed. “They must know who is the boss tomorrow,” yelled Juju. “There is a troubled soul on that mountain. You must never forget the pain. You must remember those people when you vote on 7 May. The only honour you can do to them is punish those who have killed them.”
He stood back a little, and said, “Anyone who has killed a black person does not deserve to be government.”
It was a little gruesome watching a traumatised community being used as a political ploy, but politics are gruesome. By sundown, the EFF were gone, and there was only the profound quiet of a striking town. The smell of sadza drifted over the field from the shacks.
My Twitter feed tells me Bekkersdal is burning.
* * *
Bekkersdal, Gauteng, 26°16?S 27°42?E
Election morning, sun up. A full blown, unmitigated, unvarnished army has rolled into the outskirts of this location. Count with me: two choppers, three Casspirs, three tow trucks, eight Nyalas, 32 horses, 52 cop cars, an outdoor mess, a mobile command centre, and three preteen boys yelling “Viva, ANC, viva!”
A Major Busi Vuma, who is in charge of the mounted police, tells me: “We are here for visible policing, and a safe and secure environment in order for people to do their voting.” I ask her if, maybe, the Americans have decided on a regime change invasion, because the World War III stuff around us would otherwise seem like overkill.
“The Americans are not interested in us,” she tells me.
All this sturm und drang for a few ballot boxes. When I was in Bekkersdal two days previously, there were residents that had insisted that no one in the community would vote. Last night, they burned down the Independent Election Commission voting tent and clashed with the cops. Today, democratic South Africa is waxing nostalgic, and pretending to be the police state it was 25 years ago. Above us (or is that below us?) P.W. Botha is nodding his bald dome in approval.
After the sun rises, a longish line snakes into the Independent Electoral Commission tent erected on the same spot as its incinerated predecessor. The wail of a blue light convoy rips into the centre of town, and out of a BMW emerges Minister of State Security Siyabonga Cwele. The man who previously held Cwele’s job, Ronnie Kasrils, has famously insisted that South Africans must not vote, or spoil their ballots, or vote tactically against the ANC. But Cwele wants South Africans to exercise their democratic rights, and he’s willing to use force.
“The situation is very stable this morning,” says Cwele, at an ad hoc presser. “As you see, there are many, many people in queues. People are keen to vote. We are satisfied at least with the deployment we have in Bekkersdal.” How could he possibly be unsatisfied? “We are 20 years old in our democracy,” he says. “It is an important road for us. We are also concerned about the children.” Last night, the cops detained a kid who hurled a Molotov cocktail at a Nyala—Bekkersdal’s version of the nine-year-old suicide bomber. “But people shouldn’t be afraid to come [and] vote. Even tonight, we will deploy even more.”
But deep in the mkukus of Bekkersdal’s Holomisa district, as wretched a place as anywhere in this country, the lines at the water taps are longer than at the voting station. And that’s not me being poetic—there are 14 people at the IEC tent, and 31 at the faucet. Two obese white cops observe the proceedings from their bakkie. (At this point, P.W. Botha is fucking applauding).
My colleagues and I notice the pennants tied to eucalyptus boughs that announce the shack of sangoma, and we decide to end our endless discussion of what-party-gets-what-percentage by having the bones rolled, and acquiring some solid data from the ancestors. But the sangoma doesn’t need to roll the bones. “Viva Mandela, viva!” she yells, arms raised, triumphant. She will not consult the ancestors on the chances of other parties, because they are no other parties. “The ANC will win,” she declares.
Of Bekkersdal’s 20,000 registered voters, the army outside the shack town will protect only a small minority from their non-voting peers, because so few people here actually want to vote. Bekkersdal’s young men promise that when the sun sets, they’ll go to war. “Why should we vote?” a man named Joseph says to me. “Just look at this place.”
Flare up in the East Rand, says Twitter. Time to go.
* * *
BP Filing Station, M2 turn off, co-ordinates unknown
I pull off the highway in order to use the bathroom and buy some food and a coffee. In the men’s room, two enormous white cops are engaged in a conversation. “If you take the N12 way to Springs, it’s about 15 minutes shorter. But they don’t like us to take that route. I don’t know why,” says the really big cop to the slightly smaller officer.
My colleague Jack and I order an undrinkable coffee, and drink it. All that can be said about the pastrami sandwich is that the pastrami is, as advertised, located between two slices of bread. The lady at the Wild Bean Coffee counter is pleasant. She says that she likes Jack’s ring, which appears to make Jack happy.
If you close your eyes and eat your sandwich with the sun on your face, this feels like a normal country, with normal problems—like bad coffee, and police who don’t want to take the fast route, and are not involved in the process of mobilising to slaughter their fellow citizens who have sent their children to hurl petrol bombs at armoured vehicles that were once deployed by the previous regime.
But before long, you must finish your sandwich, get back on the M2, and head for the N12 to Springs.
Which, Google insists, is the shorter route.
* * *
The cop convoy is 20 vehicles long, and I wait for them to pass as they splash sewerage onto my Toyota Tazz. They head out of the township onto the main road for some R&R. The strange thing about Evergreen is that it’s green. This road, for instance, is lined with large, deciduous trees in the aspect of a Parisian avenue. Were it not for the fact that the shack town is one of the worst in Africa, Evergreen would be rather pleasant.
As it happens, there is nothing other than the trees here, a fact that happens to enrage its citizens. After all, the Impala platinum mine is barely a stone’s throw from here (the residents know this, because they throw stones all the time), but few in Evergreen work, or have ever worked, at Impala. By sheer accident, this 24-hour odyssey has touched down at three wretched settlements within view of three once-great mines. Everywhere, there is this impression that the mines should automatically mean jobs. It’s an impression that, regardless of what happens at the polls, has made Julius Malema one of the most powerful—and will eventually make him the most powerful—man in the country.
A few days ago, Evergreen went insane. The ‘Vote No!’ campaign is rigorously enforced here, and Evergreenians went to war with cops in order to make their intentions known. A young Fighter named Chris walks Jack and me through the township, the dirt roads pocked here and there with a circle of ash, a loose slinky of unfurling wire marking the fact that tires were burned here.
South Africans love burning tyres. It is maybe South Africa’s favourite thing to do.
Chris eventually points us to the IEC polling station, a church tent filthy with township dust. Earlier in the day, the pastor demanded assurances from the IEC that his tent would be replaced if it got torched, and the IEC said yes, they would recompense him for any damage sustained. But there is no one at the tent. When we stroll back through the township, we encounter two men carrying a banged up placard with “No Vote Today” scrawled on it. They are followed by a procession of young women, barefoot, babies strapped to their backs, carrying aloft a smaller sign insisting on the same. Shortly, the cops break up the march, warning the men that voter intimidation will land them in jail for 15 years. “Not today,” the cops insist.
The tent itself is being watched. Well over a hundred locals are eyeing all those who enter it. I won’t push the visual metaphor regarding the mound of garbage that one must cross before arriving at the voting station, but it does excite the ironist in me. Chris, our Fighter friend, has joined a soccer game instead of voting. His abandoned excursion looks like a wise move from where I’m standing.
“Here,” says a woman, “we vote for the Buccaneers,” referring to Orlando Pirates FC’s nickname. “No one will vote here today. No electricity, no water, no nothing, no votes.” Last election, Evergreen voted overwhelmingly for the ANC. Today, Evergreen is staying away from the polls.
There are many Good Stories to Tell in this country. But on my own 24-hour road trip, there were very few. In a country edging toward the edge, where democracy already feels like a failed project in so many communities, violence seems like a lingua franca, and voting seems absurd. It’s a strange thing to acknowledge after covering an election for four and a half months, and even stranger to acknowledge in a country that almost killed itself to acquire these rights.
Marikana will vote in droves for men and women who have no fealty to the democratic system. Bekkersdal’s older citizens will vote, while its young will ignore the proceedings. Evergreen will sit the whole thing out entirely. In communities across this country, democracy has proved little more than a violent inconvenience. The state has been forced to bring the army in to enforce democracy, just as the state was once forced to bring the army in to deny democracy.
“I will win,” Julius Malema promised me. How can he lose? But in the big white men with big guns who ushered him into the car, I saw the echoes of the previous guys who ran the show—echoes I saw across Gauteng for the length of this campaign, echoes that are even starker on election day. If twenty years ago you’d told me that a grade four student would be arrested for throwing petrol bombs at cops the night before the fifth national elections, I’d have called you crazy.
When I leave Evergreen, the mob is considering whether to let an ambulance through its midst. The jostling is good-natured, the ambulance driver laughs at a remark. But a mob is still a mob. And an ambulance is still an ambulance. DM
Photo: In Evergreen, the voting tent sat next to a rubbish dumping site. Behind that, residents who have been protesting recently keep an eye on the tent, but very few go in to vote. (Greg Nicolson)
"Sometimes the best way to help someone is just to be near them." ~ Veronica Roth
"Men are good in one way, but bad in many" ~ Aristotle