It all came to an official close this weekend. But as new realities sink in, old ones start bubbling up. Is this a country terminally at war with itself? By RICHARD POPLAK.
I roll into Alexandra with the army. In the gritted-teeth grimness that follows the South African election, and as the results roll out in favour of the ruling party, a small cohort of this Johannesburg township’s residents have decided to protest a perceived vote-rigging scandal by murdering Somalis. In the acidic yellow glow of township night, the authorities have responded by supplying army trucks full of soldiers, and more police than I have ever seen anywhere, at one time, ever. They rumble past me in convoy, World War III battle-ready, negotiating the speed-bumps along Roosevelt-like ships in a swell. “Nothing can happen here tonight,” a police officer tells me. “Nah-thing. We are over-deployed.”
All three photos by Richard Poplak, Alexandra township, Friday 9 May 2014.
But of course something does happen. On 6th Street, which runs along the foot of an open field east of the hostel barracks, barriers have been set alight by local residents, most of them IFP supporters who form the majority in this, the township’s Zulu quarter. Their rage has been linked in successive chains to wads of missing Independent Electoral Commission ballots, the day before allegedly found in possession of a local ANC counsellor. The protesters, who apparently include Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighter supporters, want this injustice rectified.
At the burning barricades, dozens of men are staring into the flames, or standing a few feet back in the profound darkness. They say that they are from KZN, and they want the errant ballots counted. They say that there will be trouble tonight, because the government is cheating them. As we speak, rats skitter about, planning a path around the flames. When I was last here, with DA Gauteng Premier hopeful Mmusi Maimane’s election machine, the thing the residents complained about most was the rats. And the foreigners.
Unlike the rats, something can be done about the foreigners. And something is being done. Magically, despite all the hardware around us, there are no cops at the barricades, and a huge mob is moving fast toward us through a street so dark they can only be sensed and not seen. “Go,” says our interlocutor. “They will show you no mercy.”
We go, and the cops come, while the army masses at the foot of the hill preparing to “invade” the hostel and free what’s left of a Somali national who is said to be trapped inside. Others have been chased from their shacks tonight, including a Shangaan couple who tell us they did not have time to lock, and say that they are certain that in the morning they will find that their worldly possessions have been reduced to net zero. Live lean; leave fast: they move east, into a safer part of the township, looking behind them in despair.
In the ensuing mayhem, more than 60 men are arrested. The Somali does not make it out of the hostel alive. Things are burned, things are stolen. The packs of rats thicken on the asphalt at the foot of the field, agitated by the pop of stun grenades, the backing up of heavy vehicles, the shouting, the noise. I get the sense that they’re deeply pissed off at the intrusion.
Is this election violence? Is it xenophobic violence? A hybrid of the two? I suppose the honour of bestowing adjectives belongs to those perpetrating the mayhem. And while I was too young to be in townships the last time the army rolled through, many of the men here are not. They appear to savour the historical irony. In the clear bright starry night, I can make out the little streaks of purple on their fingernails, which indicates that they have voted, just as I can the little streaks of purple on the cops’ fingernails when they finally show up.
But tonight, the fact that we are all fellow citizens united by democratic expression doesn’t seem to mean much. For the men standing by the fire, the only ballots that speak are those that were not counted.
Photo: Alexandra township, the morning of 10 May 2014. (Greg Nicolson)
* * *
The South African Defence Force, or more specifically the Air Force, greets me again the following morning. Two SAAB Gripen fighter jets cut the sky above Pretoria, moving in an arc around the Voortrekker Monument, training for the inauguration celebrations that will mark the end of South Africa’s fifth democratic elections. I’m on my way to the Independent Electoral Commission’s National Results Operation Centre for the EFF’s press conference, followed by the official release of the election results.
The Operation’s Centre is headquartered in the Tshwane Events Centre, a gruesome Brutalist structure better suited to either a bathroom fixtures convention, or a sex expo. Inside the Centre, the world ends, and new political realities are woven into being. And one of those realities is the emergence of Julius Malema and his EFF as the Realio Dealio, winning 25 bone fide seats in parliament, baby! In so many respects, this was their election—a coming out party for a major politician who is all but guaranteed a say in how this country is governed for years to come.
The Commander-in-Chief sits in the centre of the table, beret perfectly placed, and kicks off in an even voice licked with irony, of which there is a lot about these days. He thanks the people of South Africa for conducting successful elections, free and fair. He concedes defeat; he says that he accepts the results. He calls on his supporters in Alexandra to stand down. He says every election—even American elections—have their problems. “We are all winners,” he says, “no one has lost here.” He thanks his Fighters for being brave, for standing up to intimidation. He says that his party, with no structures and no money, went from nothing to over a million votes in only eight months. He says he will get a million Fighters every eight months for five years.
“Indeed,” he says, “it looks impossible before it is done.”
No one will be sleeping in Parliament anymore, he promises. Fighters will arrive in overalls; there will be no hiding stupidity behind suits and ties. He dedicates his victory to the international #Bringbackourgirls campaign, and calls on the Nigerian terrorist organisation Boko Haram to #bringbackourgirls. “There are a lot of ways to engage in revolution,” he says, “kidnapping girls is not one of them.” Africans need to be better than this. We need to work together, he says.
The Angelina Jolie of Southern Africa, cinched into his red overalls, wants us to know that the ANC has not done well. “They’ve lost BIG time. Zuma has reduced [his percentage total from 65.9 to 62.15 percent]. In ANC language, it’s a BIG problem. Inside, there will be a BIG war.” If the ANC want to talk expropriation of land without compensation, the EFF will work with them. If they want to keep shooting miners, not so much.
The ANC will never recover from this mess, he says. He was told that it would be cold outside, but it is very, very warm. “How can you be cold,” he asks, “when you are surrounded by a million people?”
He says his Fighters have done well, very well. He says that will not disappear into the political wilderness. “Come on,” he mock-begs, “for once, give it to the EFF. For once.”
* * *
“We will expropriate these tables without compensation,” says the CiC as he walks into the Operation Centre’s VIP dining area. By chance, on account of the main dining area being closed to the plebs due to over-subscription, I’m chowing in big leagues. The food here is better, which is to say that it’s recognisably food.
The CiC is flanked by several Fighters, and he walks with his hands clasped behind his back. He looks both older and younger than his 33 years. If the EFF does happen to have an existential threat—and I seriously don’t mean to be unkind here—it’s the CiC’s dining habits: he eats a chop and a single forearm-thick stick of boerewors doused in salt, zero vegetables, washed down with a Coke. The Jewish mother in me worries for the guy.
Also in attendance are assorted members of the party. They discuss the nuances of parliamentary conduct, of which the CiC is ambivalent. He is astonishingly well versed in political processes, which I suppose isn’t astonishing given that this is his business. When he talks, people are quiet—he is the alpha, the leader, no question.
He is planning to call Jacob Zuma to congratulate him, an undertaking he clearly doesn’t relish. “No, it was rigged, it was rigged,” he says of the Alexandra debacle, but he will not push it any further. “Last time when they rigged, they couldn’t do it again. Next time, they will not be able to rig there.” They chat a little about Boko Haram—and man, can’t you just see Malema freeing those girls, ushering all 267 of them into a chartered Airbus, garbed in red overalls, chanting “Viva, EFF, viva”?
To quote: “Indeed, it looks impossible before it is done.”
There is a part of me that believes that he will free those girls. All I’m saying is that the dude needs to consider eating something green before he does so.
* * *
18h00 sharp. Prime Time. Time to announce the results. President Jacob Zuma does not swagger his way into the IEC centre. He shuffles, flanked by IEC Chairman Pansy Tlakula, who is under investigation for maladministration, pretty much like anyone else who flanks Jacob Zuma. He wears a somber grey suit, he keeps his head bent. It is not quite a display of humility, and there are others here in the ruling party who are more bullish. But it isn’t the hip-hop shuffle of a winner, which is what we saw back in the foreign country of 2009, when he dodges prison to win a landslide.
It is Pansy’s job to read out the results, which are flashed upon three massive screens behind her. She tells us that 29 parties contested these elections, and 13 received sufficient votes to earn a seat in parliament. The slickness of the presentation speaks to the success of the IEC as an organisation—despite the fact that Pansy is allegedly a bit dodgy, and some ballots went on a walkabout, you can’t really knock the IEC until sufficient evidence is presented to prove otherwise. Here, on the narrow isthmus where campaigning meets governance, South Africa is a resounding success.
But all rejoicing must stop for Jacob Zuma. In the maw of the two-stroke diesel steel crusher that is our President’s oratorical abilities, any occasion is smooshed into a cube of nothingness. Zuma is addressing us as State President, but this is a low-key ANC victory speech. “The ANC,” he drones, “remains the only true hope for the majority of our people.”
He tells us that a 140-year-old woman in Limpopo voted, as did a 109-year-old in Gauteng. (Did Mr. Ples, the 2.3 million year-old Australopithecus africanus fossil found in Sterkfontein also cast a ballot? Did that ballot perhaps show up in Alexandra?) He tells us how the ANC will commit itself to the poor, will battle corruption, will steer us all forthrightly toward greatness. He congratulates his opponents. “To those who did not make us,” splutters the diesel, “losing is part of the democratic process. In democracy, you win and you lose. In democracy the people are never wrong.”
Cue the drummers, cue the Zulu dancers. They perform before the stage, and I believe that I can be forgiven for feeling a bit PTSD-ey, considering their regional affiliates chased me through Alexandra the night before. Sparks are shot into the air like great fiery orgasms. Then, following an explosion that sounds like a million stun-grenades, countless chips of shiny confetti are spat over us in a colourful cloud. I can’t be certain, but I think each chip is meant to represent an individual South African, drifting upward for a brief moment and then downward to land on the fetid carpet to be trampled underfoot. Some very few remain fluttering up above, riding a thermal created by the IEC Organisation Centre’s industrial air conditioning system, shimmering in the heavens until Jesus comes.
* * *
At night, in the centre of Johannesburg nearby Luthuli House, the ANC throw a big party. Here, we encounter a different Jacob Zuma. He wears leather ANC swag. He is belligerent. He offers at lot of these: “Heh HEH heh heh.” He speaks for 25 minutes and 43 seconds. “It has been an elections and a half”, he says. For duration of the entire “fourth term”, he says, there was a “negative campaign” against the ANC, about “how failing it was.” It has all been a media conspiracy, an opposition party fantasy, and the ANC is but a punching bag for all manner of psycho-pathological behaviour among the “clever” individuals that don’t see the fact that the ANC initiated the fight against the very corruption they are so expert at perpetrating.
It has all been a dream, says Zuma. It has all been propaganda. “There is nothing wrong with Nkandla”, says the President of South Africa.
He stands at the lectern plonking the Lego blocks of an alternate reality before us, and starts building the next five years. Much of the speech appears extemporaneous. It is somehow worse than when he reads his blandishments from a teleprompter, regarding which see above.
Photo: President Jacob Zuma celebrates the ANC’s election victory with the ANC Secretary Generals, Gwede Mantashe. (Greg Nicolson)
Meanwhile, in Alexandra, the army has returned. Ten trucks, backed up by three SAPS Nyalas. Hundreds of cops. Over-deployed, as the saying goes. A resident named Emmanuel Letsoalo insists, “This is going to cause a civil war, my brother, I’m telling you. If the ANC say they are going to rule until Jesus returns, if they are so sure of this, why then did they rig this election? This simply means that every other election had been rigged, that is why I’m saying this will cause a civil war.”
The ANC didn’t rig the election, at least not in the way Mr Letsoalo means it. But in this, their fifth term, there are many competing South African realities. Here in Alexandra, Mr Letsoalo’s reality stands in opposition to Jacob Zuma’s. Perhaps they will go to war over this. Perhaps they won’t.
Nationhood is, above all thing, the act of sharing a reality. It is a government’s responsibility to forge such an accommodation; it is a citizenry’s responsibility to help them with the task. But Jacob Zuma does not appear to be listening, and many of his subjects are equally recalcitrant.
At night, leaving Alexandra, the further one drifts from the centre of the action, the quieter it gets. Silence vs. violence: almost every community in this country lives that duality to some greater or lesser extent. Some choose the violence, others the silence. And still others are presented with no choice at all. DM
* Additional reporting by Bheki C. Simelane
Main photo: A women carries water as a clean up operation by a local shop owner takes place after overnight violence in the Alexandra township, Johannesburg, South Africa, 10 May 2014. Violence broke out over night as supporters of the IFP party took to the streets and erected road blocks with burning tires. A heavy army and police presence brought stability to the area overnight. The ANC has won the 07 May election taking 62 percent of the votes. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK.