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Hope Dawns After A Night Of Flames

As South Africa marked 20 years of democracy, a record 18 million people voted. With the celebration was discontent.

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It’s 6:30 on an early winter morning. Eighty-year-old Josiah Mmutlwatse, watches a heavy police and army contingent roaming near his home. In Bekkersdal, a township south west of Johannesburg, the foggy air is filled with the smell of the previous night’s charred remains. It is election day in South Africa and the mood is tense.

On the eve of elections, the unrest in Bekkersdal resumed; with three polling stations torched by angry residents. The spontaneous violence began months before. This turbulent township, near the gold mines of the West Rand, has seen a string of unabated service delivery protests. As the elections drew closer, protests intensified with threats to disrupt the polls.

But none of this could deter pensioner Mmutlwatse, who at the crack of dawn was the first in the queue at his polling station. He has never missed an opportunity to cast his vote since the first democratic elections in 1994.

The former bus driver patiently waits for the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) personnel to erect a marquee to be used as a polling station. Thirty minutes later, he is pleased to have exercised his democratic right to elect his government.

Although his allegiance still lies with the ruling African National Congress (ANC), Mmutlwatse hopes these polls will bring some much-needed change.

“I voted for the liberation party as always – ANC. It set us free from apartheid. It is hope for our children. Since we have voted, we want the elected people, even president (Jacob) Zuma, to listen to our cries. Our votes should not be blank cheques.”

Last year, Nomvula Mokonyane, the premier of Gauteng, raised the ire of Bekkersdal residents when she said the ANC does not need the residents’ dirty votes. Mokonyane was responding to threats that they would boycott the elections if service delivery was not improved.

“I am hurt by the unrest the dissenting youth brought, some people are not appreciative of our hard-earned freedom to vote. The government has a big task ahead. It must be explained to them that our democracy did not come on a silver platter. People died for it. It is not for sale.”

Mmutlwatse has lived in the township for more than fifty years, coming from the nearby farms. He rented a backyard room for a year before he could secure a four-room home in 1950, where he still lives with his three daughters. Out of his seven children, they are the only ones still alive.

“It was the first time I felt I had some dignity. If you have a house of your own, where your children could call home, no matter the size, it is freedom.”

A lack of housing and the high rate of unemployment are challenges that the youth in the area must face, says Mmutlwatse. The majority are shack dwellers.

Though Mmutlwatse owned a house for many years, he says the ANC-led government made him feel it was really his own when he received the title deed a decade ago. But he acknowledges that Bekkersdal is a far cry from a functional area.

He knows the community inside out and in the past used his old minibus to transport people, sometimes for free. He was like a godfather to the younger generation.

“Education should be the priority here. We understand the youth is not up in arms for no reason, they are frustrated by the government’s empty promises. I watch them roaming streets. They are not at school and many are unemployed,” he says.

While Mmutlwatse remains optimistic, his community still needs some convincing.

Twenty six kilometres away in Soweto, Happy Phiri, a reformed convict turned entrepreneur, is satisfied with the progress the government has made so far.

“I could not miss this one because I value voting. It’s something many South Africans were denied for many years. I spent 14 years in prison and the time spent there robbed me of certain things, including voting,” says Phiri.

Phiri, a 48-year-old father of three, was up at 3AM, two hours earlier than usual to make sure he didn’t miss casting his vote before he went to his workshop where he manufactures candles. On this day, he had an order for a hundred candles for a Mother’s Day event at a local church.

Phiri turned his life around when he joined the non-governmental organization NICRO while incarcerated. He left Mangaung Prison in 2010, trained as a candle maker.

With three years in business, Phiri has employed three people and bought a delivery van and equipment worth almost R100,000 ($9,600).

Bekkersdal’s very own Arab Spring will not die as the elections end; a politician just has to take a stroll through the run-down streets to realize this.

Red Berets And Tears

It was a record turnout for a South African election. More than 18 million voted in a poll on May 7 that threw up more than a few surprises.

It was one of those rare elections where the big story was not how much the ruling party gained, but how much it lost. The result was never in doubt, neither was the protest vote that hundreds of thousands of disgruntled South Africans cast.

In the end, the African National Congress (ANC) stormed home losing a lot less support than many of their supporters feared. It leaves the ruling party short of the two thirds majority, which gives it greater parliamentary powers, but it virtually assures control of South Africa until at least 2019, maybe beyond. It also assures that economic policy is likely to remain with few radical measures required to recover disgruntled supporters. The word among party insiders at the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) in Pretoria – the election nerve center – was that, if anything, government policy is likely to move more in favor of the free market as the money men around the world appear to have said all bets are off if there is a threat of socialism and nationalization.

Both are flaunted, like battle flags, by the young turks of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). In many ways, the EFF was the story of this election. The party was formed in October, when red bereted leader, Julius Malema, a disgruntled and belligerent former ANC loyalist, decided to give his old employers one in the eye. The idea was to take the high moral ground of socialism and power to the people that helped sweep the ANC to power in the first elections 20 years ago. It appears to have worked for the EFF, who, from a standing start gathered more than a million votes. It means Malema and 24 red bereted new menbers will sit in Parliament in Cape Town this year. It may spice up proceedings.

But the EFF may take heed of a cautionary tale from another opposition party, COPE. In 2009, COPE, also peopled by disgruntled former ANC members, garnered a stunning 1.3 million votes in its first tilt at the polls. This year, COPE got a mere 100,000 votes, less than 1%. Will EFF be able to cope in 2019?

“This isn’t the end of COPE,” says spokesman Johann Abrie. Really?

Agang – the party founded by Mamphela Ramphele and promising a new tomorrow – may rue its decision to fight the polls. It was humbled and ended up with two lousy seats.

The Democratic Alliance, taking years to shrug off its image as a white middle-class party, made more solid gains.

“We gain 3% every time around, then we cry for five years and try again,” says a DA loyalist.

That means maybe our grandchildren will witness the inauguration of the first DA president of South Africa. In a decade, or two, of power the DA too could be criticized by voters for being an out-of-touch incumbent that thinks it owns the country. Maybe?

The path of democracy was far from smooth in South Africa. There were threats and arrests in Alexandra, in Johannesburg, after fighting between rival parties. Voters in the tiny farming town of Tzaneen, in Limpopo, stormed  a voting station and damaged it. Two people were shot, one dead, in KwaZulu Natal.

Elsewhere, a ballot box was found dumped on a roadside and a school storing ballot papers was broken into. These will be investigated by the IEC as it prepares for the 2019 election.

“These remain isolated incidents that we are taking very seriously. We can all agree the process is going well and we can be proud of our nation and our democracy,” says Pansy Tlakula, the head of the IEC.

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