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SA township heaves under election dispute

In a largely successful election, Alexandra is on the brink of protest.
Last modified: 11 May 2014 15:58

There is still anger stealing through Alexandra.

Despite the relative calm and slowness of a typical Sunday morning, residents in the township, minutes from Sandton, the high-brow suburb of Johannesburg, say provocation is but a stone's throw away.

On Saturday night, small-scale protests took place for a second time since the election on Wednesday. A series of streets were blocked with overturned plastic toilets and burning tyres as residents demanded officials acknowledge cheating had taken place in the polling stations here.

The trouble in Alex, as it is affectionately known in Johannesburg, began shortly after votes started to be tallied at the five polling stations in the township.

Opposition parties, the IFP and EFF allege that the local ANC counsellor conspired with the IEC officials to tamper with the results. They say ballot papers were found in the counsellor’s home. Residents took to the streets on Friday to protest against the election results and clashed with police officers. The army was eventually called to quell the violence.

In the larger scheme of South Africa's successful election, where about 25,000 polling station played host to 18 million people, the tale of Alexandra's disputed election is an anomaly.

But in the story of Alexandra - the 112-year-old township sitting on the doorstep of wealthy suburbia, the dispute is the latest chapter in an ongoing narrative of disempowerment. In its physical location, Alex is intimately connected to the economic heart of South Africa but in itself, Alex is disconnected from the greater South African narrative.

In London Road, we meet the unemployed Patrick Mthembu, 44, who uses a flurry of expletives to lament the living conditions in the township. For him the election dispute is further proof that democracy is yet to transform the lives of people here.

"Nothing has changed. Look at the toilets. They talk about democracy, but there is no such thing," Patrick said. "We have no privacy. I have three children and look how we live," he added, pointing at the sprawl of informal settlements straddling the street.

While Mthembu is open to expressing his opinion over the lack of transformation in the township, and insistent that the ANC cheated its way to victory, others in the vicinity are tight- lipped, afraid even to speak.

Women carrying wet clothes on the side of the streets shake their heads when asked about the protests and anger in the community. They decline to talk. Young men, loitering on the street corners bemoan the violence but say they understand that some kind of cheating had taken place. The anger expressed towards the election dispute has further fed the discontentment of many people here.

It has been a catalyst for people here to raise their voice, or indeed, use the ensuing chaos of protests to loot and pillage.

Foreigners in Alex walk a tightrope. They have often borne the brunt of the anger of people here. On Friday night they were targeted once more. Their shops were broken into and their belongings stolen. For some, the added resentment is just a crutch to justify crime on easy targets. 

The escalated volatility in Alex is palpable.

Debris remains on select streets with vehicles zig-zagging between rocks, boulders and freshly burnt tyres strewn in various districts of the township. On Saturday, at least two men demanded that we leave the area; one charged our vehicle with a brick in his hand.

Results released by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) showed that out of the five polling stations, the IFP managed to win one district with the ANC winning the other four. Overall, the ANC took the ward with 48 percent of the vote.

On the surface, the questions around the ANC are seemingly inconsequential - considering the landslide victory for the ruling party across the country. On closer inspection, however, the ANC had its hardest battle with the opposition party, the Democratic Alliance in the Gauteng province, in which Alexandra resides. There is an adage that goes, "you cannot win Gauteng without the townships".

While the ANC won Gauteng with 63 percent in 2009, it only managed 53 percent this year and suddenly the ANC victory of 48 percent win in Alexandra means a little more.

Nevertheless, one resident, Sipho Sibisi, 49, an artisan, said he did not understand why parties could not sit around a table and resolve their differences, noting that the latest dispute had left the community here restless. He admitted though, "things are bad here". It's not hard to understand why.

Residents must daily meander through garbage, goats and overturned solid waste containers. Informal houses are squeezed intensely between the muck. Even at the Pan African shopping mall in Alex, these polar opposites of the same world stand side by side: patrons walk past first-world brands but must carry their own toilet paper to the washrooms.

When asked if protesting, burning, and the destruction of property was their best chance of being heard, Mthembu says protest is necessary.

"My man, Mandela said, "South Africa, you have to toyi toyi [protest] if you want things to come right," he said. "Check where we stay. There [Sandton] is five-star, but check where we stay. They tell us we are free. The only way now is to fight."

With additional reporting by Pontsho Pilane