Provocation triple distilled
20 August 2017 13:30 (South Africa)
South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER: A stone’s throw from a meltdown — Gauteng on fire

  • Richard Poplak
    HEADSHOT_Rich-Poplak_orange.jpg
    Richard Poplak

    Richard Poplak was born and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He trained as a filmmaker and fine artist at Montreal’s Concordia University and has produced and directed numerous short films, music videos and commercials. Now a full-time writer, Richard is a senior contributor at South Africa’s leading news site, Daily Maverick, and a frequent contributor to publications all over the world. He is a member of Deca Stories, the international long-form non-fiction collective.

    His first book was the highly acclaimed Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa (Penguin, 2007); his follow-up was entitled The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop-Culture in the Muslim World (Soft Skull, 2010). Poplak has also written the experimental journalistic graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop Sandbox, 2010). His election coverage from South Africa’s 2014 election, written under the nom de plume Hannibal Elector, was collected as Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle (Tafelberg, 2014).  Ja, No, Man was longlisted for the Alan Paton Non-Fiction prize, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Literary Award and voted one of the Top-10 books of 2007 by Now Magazine. Richard has won South Africa’s Media-24 Best Feature Writing Award and a National Magazine Award in Canada.

    Since 2010, Poplak has been travelling across Africa, seeking out the catalysts and characters behind the continent’s 21stcentury metamorphosis. The coming book, co-authored with Kevin Bloom, is called The Shift

  • South Africa
Photo: The local community of Eldorado Park took to the streets blocking major roads including the N1 and N12 as they protested over a lack of housing and land for their community. Eldorado Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, 08 May 2017. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

It’s protest season in Gauteng, and South Africa’s richest province is slowly becoming ungovernable. RICHARD POPLAK went to Eldorado Park to watch it all unfold.

The archeological remnants of recent protest action is in evidence all along the Golden Highway: streaks of brilliant black ash from burned tires; chunks of pavement and twisted metal; bricks and rubbish accidentally whipped into Van Gogh-ish swirls.

Several days ago, the Soweto wards comprising Eldorado Park snapped.

But Eldos was not the only one. Throughout Gauteng, due to some complex pattern of mass anger that only bots from the future will be able to map, forgotten neighbourhoods were rising up. According to the cops, on this otherwise unremarkable Tuesday in Gauteng there were protests in Eldos, Ennerdale, Klipspruit West, Orange Farm, Vlakfontein and Jerusalema, to name only a few. This is, of course, literally what a revolution looks like. But these were disconnected communities, unlinked to the South Africa we’re told we live in, existing far from the flow of history, and outside the parsimonious loop of the formal economy. They were just another mini-front against which the government must wage war: 30 cops, 200 rounds of rubber bullets, 15 cop cars, a Nyala. Shift change. Repeat.

And so it was on the second sustained day of protest action in Eldorado Park. Like most people who don’t live here, I hadn’t visited the community since last year’s municipal elections, when the ANC made a half-hearted attempt to wrest ward 16 and 17 from the Democratic Alliance. Zuma and Company were, of course, unsuccessful – the ANC is loathed here with venom that one doesn’t encounter even in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs.

Photo: Protestors hide behind a traffic sign while they are fired at by police during a violent protest in Eldorado Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, 08 May 2017. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

That said, since the end of the previous regime, the people of Eldorado Park have never really made a go of committed protest. But here we were, on Main Road, behind an unimpressive but somehow severe barricade of rubbish and burning Dunlops. About 60 people living on the nearby streets were gathered to tend to the blaze and dump glass and other detritus onto a growing mound. Liquor bottles exploded, drawing the interest of the men with guns. About five policemen in riot gear pulled up to the mess, jumping out of their vehicles with helmets askew. One of them began rolling a large chunk of concrete into the gutter with his boot.

“Hello boy, los alles net so. That’s not your job. Just leave it like that.” This was Themba Khumalo, a convener for the South African Communist Party for Soweto.

“We’re getting angry,” said the cop.

“Angry for what?” asked Khumalo. “Angry. For. What?”

Two cops chased a kid into a nearby yard. From somewhere up the street, gunshots popped.

“Moenie hardloop nie. Don’t run,” said Khumalo calmly. As much as anything, this was serving as an education in community protest. The elders schooled the kids on how best to shut down the streets, which basically represented a complete breakdown in the relationship between locals and the cops. A Nyala lurked on Main Street, and drove its way down towards us.

“Don’t run. Don’t run,” said Khumalo, doing a fine impression of Mel Gibson in Braveheart. Moments later, gunshots, and the crowd scattered into the backstreets.

***

“Over the years, the coloureds never took to the streets in this manner, we always engaged,” Khumalo told me later. He was a good old boy in his 50s, with an ironic cast to his features. Eldorado Park is a coloured community, he explained, which put the ‘hood on the wrong side of the government: treated better than blacks during apartheid, so the story goes, they are now being punished for the past. While that may be, there are many black neighbourhoods in as bad a shape as Eldos, if not worse. But this is a complicated country, where every narrative ends in a flaming barricade if you wait long enough.

“Yes, we even had the president here,” said Khumalo, referring to visits from Himself in 2013 and 2016. “But people are just fed up. It’s promises promises promises. And then they send these people to intimidate the people in Eldos.” He waved dismissively at the cops, which counted as politeness around here. A woman with peroxided hair was using language that was so foul that it folded in on itself, and became transcendental poetry.

But why rise up now? I wanted to know.

What was the catalyst?

A second activist, named James Lawrence, explained. “We sent a memorandum the second week after elections to mayor’s office, to premier’s office, and to the banks.” [You’ll recall that following the municipal elections, Executive Mayor Parks Tau was replaced by DA candidate Herman Mashaba.] “We told them our problems. But even when the president was here, they took Eldo as a drug problem. But they don’t ask why is it a drug problem. They prioritise drugs as the main problem. It’s not.”

So what is the primary issue?

“Housing. When we talk about housing issues, those are the fundamental issues.”

That plaint is being echoed across Gauteng, as the housing backlog becomes a flashpoint. Title deed and housing disbursement is where most folks who live in townships encounter corruption at its most garish. What’s clear is that the province cannot keep up with the extent of its commitments – last August, Premier David Makhura admitted that 400,000 people were waiting to receive title deeds.

“We work with all our municipalities, we hammer the Deeds Office," he said, with no small amount of exasperation. Leaving aside the wisdom of the RDP programme, how on Earth will a province that’s delivered 1-million homes since 1994 -- by no means an insignificant number -- spit out another 400k so as to quell the insurrections that are flaring up by the day?

“Ag, leave the housing issue for a moment,” said Lawrence. “It’s also the lack of service delivery, and there’s no work for our children. It’s a situation that’s driving the community absolutely mad.”

Thabiso Mpetsana, the chairperson of Vision for Eldorado, added, “They’re saying they’ll shoot us where we stand. This is not the sort of service delivery the people of Eldos are asking for.”

Photo: Protests burned tires, closing a major road, during a violent protest in Eldorado Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, 08 May 2017. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

Indeed, the grievances here run deep. For the most part, though, it’s the sense that the coloured communities of this country have been totally forgotten. Drive down Main Street on an average day, and the asphalt is superbly graded, the houses sharply painted, and not far from us, a spiffing community centre – a fine lower middle-class community in South Africa. But the problems are baked into the veneer: as Soweto transforms, residents in Eldos and Ennerdale claim to have been left behind. Few of transformation’s actual spoils end up here – no jobs, no tenders, no genuine development, no service delivery. As such, a vicious drug epidemic has taken hold, a social pathology that has come to define communities like this one. Backyards overflow with shacks, many of which are lolly lounges – the drug dens that consume Eldos’ young like so much chum. But every community has a version of this story, of government that doesn’t care, and people that are sick of waiting.

Later in the afternoon, Khumalo joined me by a row of SAPS vehicles along the Golden Highway, while a chopper did loop-the-loops around our heads.

“You see, the situation is becoming more volatile.” He was pointing to a group of people gathering at the fringes of neighbouring Freedom Park. “They share our problems,” he said. “Soon, the police will need to deal with them.”

As a colleague noted yesterday, Gauteng is slowly becoming ungovernable. The problem, of course, is that it was never really governed – at least not for all who live in it. This round of furious protests is not the tipping point, by any means. They’re just pixels on the giant flatscreen playing the South African apocalypse in slo-mo. Grim history mirrors grim future, while the present burns. DM

Photo: The local community of Eldorado Park took to the streets blocking major roads including the N1 and N12 as they protested over a lack of housing and land for their community. Eldorado Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, 08 May 2017. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

  • Richard Poplak
    HEADSHOT_Rich-Poplak_orange.jpg
    Richard Poplak

    Richard Poplak was born and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He trained as a filmmaker and fine artist at Montreal’s Concordia University and has produced and directed numerous short films, music videos and commercials. Now a full-time writer, Richard is a senior contributor at South Africa’s leading news site, Daily Maverick, and a frequent contributor to publications all over the world. He is a member of Deca Stories, the international long-form non-fiction collective.

    His first book was the highly acclaimed Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa (Penguin, 2007); his follow-up was entitled The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop-Culture in the Muslim World (Soft Skull, 2010). Poplak has also written the experimental journalistic graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop Sandbox, 2010). His election coverage from South Africa’s 2014 election, written under the nom de plume Hannibal Elector, was collected as Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle (Tafelberg, 2014).  Ja, No, Man was longlisted for the Alan Paton Non-Fiction prize, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Literary Award and voted one of the Top-10 books of 2007 by Now Magazine. Richard has won South Africa’s Media-24 Best Feature Writing Award and a National Magazine Award in Canada.

    Since 2010, Poplak has been travelling across Africa, seeking out the catalysts and characters behind the continent’s 21stcentury metamorphosis. The coming book, co-authored with Kevin Bloom, is called The Shift

  • South Africa

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