OP-ED

Mbizana voter registration weekend: So is this Democracy?

By Vanessa Burger 30 January 2019

Police patrol empty streets during voter registration, 25-26 January, 2019, Ndakeni Village. Image supplied.

Mbizana in the Eastern Cape is probably best known for the almost two-decades-long war that has raged between mining – more recently also the state – and the Xolobeni community of ward 25. But there are other communities, equally besieged and for over an equally long period, that have not benefited from the understanding and popular support afforded the Xolobeni struggle by environmental and other high-profile civic groups’ solidarity, assistance and exposure.

By contrast, Mbizana’s other community struggles have received little or mostly negative press coverage. Mainstream media has focused on traffic disruptions caused by “violent” service delivery protests, the impact of this “instability” on the local economy and damage to infrastructure. Community voices have not penetrated public consciousness, allowing a toxic political culture to flourish within a vacuum of silence, ignorance and disinformation. This is not in any way to detract from the critical importance of the anti-mining struggle, it is simply that while all eyes have been focused on Xolobeni, human, democratic and constitutional rights were ground to a pulp elsewhere.

In a few months, there will be another election, another “opportunity” to “make your voice heard” as we are urged by the IEC and politicians alike, desperate for our elusive “X”.

However, according to the recently released South African Citizens Survey, unmotivated potential voters (irrespective of their registration status) amount to around 10.5 million – almost a third – of the 37 million eligible voters. At the end of this past weekend, the IEC announced close to 27 million voters were registered.

Some call it “voter apathy”, but for many, withdrawal from the democratic process signals voter rage and disgust. With few, mostly unpalatable political options, some communities believe their silence speaks louder than their participation in a process they have seen subverted. Silence is also safer.

According to news reports over this last weekend, community protests prevented the opening of at least 140 voter registration stations throughout the country. Eyewitness News reported that IEC CEO Sy Mamabolo, while recognising the right to protest, said potential voters must also be allowed to exercise their right to register. Security, he said, had been tightened at troublespots, adding, “The IEC doesn’t want to militarise the electoral process.”

Not so, it seems in some areas.

While Mbizana was reportedly among the areas where protesters barred IEC operations, the district’s ward 8 community was not among them. They simply stayed away from the registration stations set up at three local schools. This did not, however, seem to deter local ANC officials or police apparently acting on their orders, from embarking on what, to the community, appeared to be a distinctly threatening and undemocratic show of force.

Protest on the R61. Image supplied.

According to a Mbizana community leader, currently in hiding after he recently reported being beaten, pepper-sprayed in the face and unlawfully arrested (his name is withheld due to fears for his safety), police brutality is commonly used against anyone even suspected of political rivalry. His crime, it seems, was to ask officers what they were looking for when the vehicle in which he and his companions were travelling was pulled over and searched. When they refused to answer and one of the officers swore at him, he foolishly returned the compliment.

Held over a weekend, and initially denied medical attention, the local hospital to which he was eventually taken after family members intervened once they had located him in a holding cell deep in the rural areas, lacked proper facilities. The subsequent infection to injuries most likely caused – according to the doctor who examined him several days later after his eventual release on bail – by being hit about the legs with a rifle butt, has virtually crippled the young man. He was charged with resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer. But photographic evidence, medical reports and witness statements contradict this. A complaint against the police has been lodged with the Eastern Cape IPID, but it has yet to respond.

The man believes the police were probably acting on the orders of the local ANC ward councillor. In June last year, Mbizana communities barricaded the R61, the main road that links Port St Johns with the rest of the province. Since 2002 they have watched as public funds intended for water and sanitation, housing, roads, electrification and other infrastructure projects have evaporated, while local politicians have become increasingly bloated, arrogant and more powerful. Hitmen, including those linked to the taxi industry, a byproduct of the ANC’s provincial anarchy, have risen among the ranks, and allegedly ensure the elimination – or at least the fearful silence – of witnesses in corruption investigations into the Mbizana and Alfred Nzo municipalities undertaken, it would seem, by an increasingly complicit police force.

Residents gather following the alleged assault of a community leader by police on 11 January 2019. The incident has been reported to the Eastern Cape IPID.  Image supplied

Community members are the first to admit that there are other things they would rather be doing than embarking on road blockades. Last year a public order police unit allegedly fired live rounds at protesters. An elderly man reported he was shot with a rubber bullet and children were teargassed in their homes. A number of other residents – mostly women whom the community claimed were not involved in the protests – were rounded up and confessions allegedly beaten out of them. The court – which the investigating officer reportedly urged to “make an example of them” – fined the women R8,000 each for admission of guilt. They sat in jail for a further week before the community could scrape together sufficient funds to secure their release. One of these dangerous felons was a young single mother who was breastfeeding the infant from which she was separated for the duration of her incarceration.

But, the community leader explained, for as long as corruption flourishes and local government officials continue to disregard the communities’ most basic needs, disruption of the R61 is likely to remain the only means by which the disaffected can try to get much-needed political attention to their degrading living conditions.

They treat us like animals,” complained the community leader. “We are forced to drink water in which the pigs and livestock shit. People get sick all the time. This stream is the only place for our village to get water.”

WAR ON THE WARDS

The community leader believes, however, that his real crime, the reason behind his brutal assault, was to be recognised by his people as a potential future ward candidate. As another man put it: “These days, if you want to be a ward councillor you will be signing your own death certificate.”

When asked about voter registration in his village on Saturday, the community leader relayed a dismal commentary that turned even the pretence of the democratic process on its head.

In my village, the ward councillor came with the very POP unit that assaulted me. They are putting up IEC banners. The ward councillor is driving around the village with heavily armed police force from Lusikisiki, Flagstaff and Qhasa. Why they always do this to us? The police are supposed to protect us not what they doing.”

An hour later he sent another message.

The people are running for their lives. The ward councillor is driving around the village. He is escorted by police and other unknown vehicles. Maybe they are hitmen. People heard him saying: ‘People will go to register whether they like it or not, [he] is going to make sure of that’.”

The man confirmed there was no community protest action. In fact, the photographs sent by the community showed roads empty of all but police vehicles, a deserted IEC registration station and a community seemingly in lockdown.

A deserted voter registration station at Ndakeni Village, 26 January 2019. Image supplied.

Now people are leaving their homes because of fear. The ward councillor went to his van and came back with other men. We don’t know where he gets them from. It looks like they are ready to strike anytime now, people are locking themselves in their yards, nobody knows what is going to happen and the police are still there.”

When asked if other political parties were active in his area, he replied, “No, only ANC SACP.”

In 2016 Mbizana residents reported that the SACP had wanted to field a candidate to contest the local government elections.

A community member claimed: “It was on the ballot paper. But at a later stage, G______ [a powerful ANC leader who was recently given a top job in the Eastern Cape provincial government] managed to speak to Blade Nzimande. Blade then allegedly gave a direct order to remove SACP from the ballot papers and ordered each and every member of the SACP to go and vote for the ANC. So the former SACP candidate decided to start his own political party.”

Another source – now also in hiding after attempting to expose suspected local government corruption – concluded the story about the hapless former SACP candidate, “they tried to kill him and drained him of his resources”.

Locals have suggested certain municipality officials know more about the 2011 murder of previous ward 8 councillor Jivams Mfingwana than was uncovered by the police.

One man recalled: “That poor guy, he could not even harm a fly. We strongly believe his assassination was indeed political. We were all surprised when [the current ward councillor] took over. We never elected him. And those who put him there, today they’re enemies to him because he joined the camp of G______ and some, they were kicked out of the municipality. Those that are still there, they are powerless, they are just puppets looking out for their own needs.”

Another added, “Before, [the current ward councillor was elected] he used to drive his father’s old van transporting people from Ntlenzi to Mfindiswini, from there he went straight into the ward councillor’s office. The guy knows nothing about politics. They put him there so they can remote control him. They gave him lots of money. He was very thin but now you can tell that he is living a luxury life. Where did he get all this money that’s the question?”

COUNTDOWN TO ZERO

On day two of voter registration the community leader resumed his commentary. “Today seems worse, even the mayor with Mbizana VIP Protection Unit and POP are in my village. Its like they are forcing people to go and register.”

He reported more than 10 police vehicles were patrolling the area together with the ward councillor’s unknown forces and the mayor’s VIP Protection Unit. At around 2 pm he reported: “The mayor is calling people for the meeting. But no one wants to go, they are desperate.”

Another source alleged the mayor had been making enquiries about the community leader’s whereabouts. Yet they were hardly close friends, the source said. He also reported that the ward councillor seemed to have insider knowledge regarding the community leader’s assault – information that it seems could only have come from the police – and had allegedly blamed the leader for “instability” in the ward.

Late last year the community leader had received graphic photographs sent via WhatsApp from an unknown number of what looked like suspects killed at various violent crime scenes. The images could only have originated from the police and the message implied was clear.

A few days ago the community leader had been warned that a person had been seen lurking outside his room at his mother’s home. When spotted, the intruder ran away. He was warned last year, his name and those of his comrades were on a hit list. A friend who had become equally embroiled in Mbizana politics disappeared without a trace in December 2017. Like the assassination of Xolobeni anti-mining activist Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Radebe the year before, police have made no headway with any of these cases.

This thing of killing everybody who stands in their way started a long time ago,” declared a ward 8 resident.

Much later I received a further update from the community.

The mayor tried to order the police to arrest people who were standing outside the gate of the school but some colonel from Port St Johns refused and ordered the police to leave the village. They’ve all gone now, including the ward councillor ran away thanks to this colonel. Even today no one go and register, so it’s zero.”

The community alleges funds meant for low-cost housing have been lost to corruption and mismanagement. Image supplied.

For those far removed in leafy suburbs who still cling to the belief we are living in a “constitutional democracy”, that your vote really can change our toxic political trajectory, that there are merely a few “rotten apples” spoiling the SAPS, and that our institutions of accountability were merely “hollowed out” during Zuma’s tenure, and not repurposed over a far longer period as blunt instruments with which to bludgeon shattered communities into political submission while still maintaining the façade of respectable governance, all this may seem a bit hard to swallow.

But another man, himself a former mid-level government official also now in hiding after attempts on his life, confirmed all the Mbizana communities’ allegations. Having fallen foul of powerful political cadres since being ensconced in the provincial legislature, he said after he survived an earlier assassination attempt, more subtle means were employed to destroy him. His career, his family relationships, his reputation and his financial stability were systematically undermined, he claimed. He can no longer afford to send his children to school and his health has been hammered. He does not believe in Ramaphosa’s “new dawn”.

The sole water source at Ndakeni village, Mbizana, is polluted with livestock faeces. Image supplied.

These people are too important to the ANC,” he said of some of the officials the Mbizana community had railed against. “They can never be removed, our system allows it.”

Late on Sunday night, the community leader sent one final message: “I really don’t understand why the ANC is interfering in IEC matters. The registration for voting is supposed to be handled by the IEC, not a political party like the ANC. This is not right. It’s clear the ANC controls the IEC so they must not call it the ‘independent’ electoral commission, they must call it the ANCEC.”

While South Africa may claim its place as a fully functional democracy, for these communities, grim reality paints a converse picture. DM

Vanessa Burger is an independent community activist for human rights and social justice

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