Boys clean up a voting station that was set alight by the community in Bekkersdal west of Johannesburg. 060514 Picture:Boxer Ngwenya

Johannesburg - Angry Bekkersdal community members have burnt down Independent Electoral Commission tents that would have been used as polling stations on Wednesday.

Flames and smoke from the burning polling stations could be seen from afar in the township at about 9pm on Tuesday night.

Three polling stations were burnt to ashes and one person was arrested, according to the police.

Community leader Paseka Ndevu said residents were unhappy with the army’s presence.

He said the community had raised their concerns during a meeting held at a community hall in the afternoon.

Ndevu said the meeting had been called by community leaders who were pleading with residents to go and vote peacefully.

“The community said the presence of the army brings back bad memories about the apartheid era. They said they were willing to vote, but they wanted the army to move out of the area,” he said.

Ndevu said the meeting had ended with residents saying they would vote. He was surprised when he received calls telling him that IEC tents were on fire.

Police said Bekkersdal residents ran amok and burnt the polling stations after the meeting had ended.

The army has been deployed to the volatile township since Monday in order to maintain order in the area during the election period.

Provincial police spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Lungelo Dlamini said the problems had started when the community alleged that someone had committed theft. It was not immediately clear what had been stolen.

Dlamini said things turned ugly when police tried to rescue the suspect, who had been captured by residents. Angry residents started hurling stones at the police.

When police tried to arrest those intending to carry out mob justice, the suspects ran and hid. Soon thereafter residents had torched the IEC tents, Dlamini said. He said details were still sketchy.

There was a heavy police presence when The Star arrived shortly after the incident. Police and the army were milling around. There were stones scattered on the roads.

The debris and a ballot box in IEC colours were the only items left.

A witness, Frans Mathabatha, of Mabotwane Security, said residents armed with stones and sticks had appeared just before 6pm. “They threw stones at us and we ran away. They then went and set the tents alight,” he said.

Mathabatha said the police had tried to extinguish the fire, but the flames spread very quickly. Residents had also burnt a portable toilet.

Many residents were too scared to speak on the record, but expressed unhappiness that the tents had been torched.

“How are we going to vote, now that the tents are gone? I was in my house when I saw flames. I peered through the window,” said one of the residents.

IEC spokeswoman Kate Bapela confirmed two tents had been burnt down. The commission would see how it dealt with the situation. There would be voting in Bekkersdal on Wednesday, she assured.

Earlier, just after 2pm, ANC members had driven into Bekkersdal in a convoy of more than 10 vehicles and a bus, spinning their cars, during last-minute campaigning. Some residents sang and waved placards belonging to opposition parties in response.

The Star