“We don’t care about Gucci and Prada. We just want delivery eKasi,” says a Wesselton resident after four days of heated, violent protests in the township near Ermelo, Mpumalanga.
It is Friday morning and he is one of scores of young, unemployed men walking the streets.
The anger in his voice is palpable. He spits the words “Gucci” and “Prada” out, referring to the penchant for fine things ANC politicians have acquired in their years of power.
The man, who identifies himself only as Nkosinathi, believes he will probably chastised and perhaps even killed for speaking out against the ruling party. This is Mpumalanga, after all.
“I’ve been receiving threats. People are telling me we are on a hit list because we are anti-revolutionary and anti-ANC. We are not anti-ANC. These are the very same issues that confront the communities of other areas. We want decent water, toilets and jobs. But (those other communities) are living in fear.”
Residents of Wesselton say they are no longer afraid. They faced off against police, some of whom used live ammunition, and most have lived to see the next day. One “comrade” has died. Solomon Madonsela has become a martyr.
What simmers here is an anger that has turned into a resolute decision: we will not accept this; we deserve better.
The signs of their struggle are not contained to one section of the sprawling settlement. Destroyed traffic lights, Telkom public phones, burnt containers and the tell-tale black smear left by burnt tyres can be seen throughout the area. Where there are no tyre marks, stones and glass are scattered on the road and pavement.
Nkosinathi spends his time with other angry young men. Some would call them militant. They are fiercely political. The call each other “comrade” and say they are fierce ANC supporters, but in the same breath vow not to vote for the ruling party – or anyone else – in the upcoming local government elections.
Community leader Dumisani Mahaye says he will make the proposal to thee community at a meeting to be held tomorrow.
Mahaye says the party, which has a majority of council seats in the Msukaligwa Municipality, should be “grounded like an errant child” by communities withholding their endorsement at the polls.
“The ANC has been promising for years. It’s been doing that since 1994. But it never lives up to its promises.”
Another “comrade” appears and joins the circle, saying the ANC’s approach doesn’t help, but arguing that the solution cannot be to vandalise state and private property. “Hasn’t the community learnt anything after 15 years? You can voice your anger, but it’s wrong to damage property. When we are angry we can’t break things that belong to us,” he says. Some nod in agreement. “The ANC angers people because it doesn’t engage them.”
There is a suggestion that 50 percent of all local jobs be retained for residents, both at the surrounding mines and in the council.
The circle is divided – some call for a 70 percent job quota for locals, while others say skills development is what’s really needed.
Mahaye goes so far as to suggest that councillor salaries be scrapped and that money be used for skills projects.
“People don’t work because they are not skilled. Why not take the councillor salaries and build something that will help people? What do the councillors do? People don’t see them. Why should they get paid?”
And older resident overhears the debate and offers his opinion. Having lived in Ermelo for more than 40 years, Jeremiah Khumalo is just as frustrated as the young men. His gripe is with a seemingly inefficient and uncaring municipality, which, he says, has ignored a request for technicians to be sent to his home to repair a burst pipe.
He takes us to his home, where water can be seen running from a hole in his driveway into the street. He scoops it out to show us the damaged pipe, explaining that he has reported it to at least three different people, including a clerk in the mayor’s office. Two months later, water still runs into the street.
Several streets away we are shown another property that has lost a large portion of its lawn to a growing body of water.
According to homeowner Moses Duma and several neighbours, council workers dug the hole “and just left it” in April.
Residents say children regularly play in the dirty water after school. Even more disturbing is the electric cabling which runs beneath the hole.
Duma says the hole was initially dug to fix a burst pipe. “They keep promising: they are coming, they are coming. But they don’t come.”
His brother Collin emerges from the house and tells us that a child nearly drowned recently. “The kids like to play in this water. I saw one of them nearly drown but I managed to get them out.”
Municipal spokesman Surprise Ngcongo said last week that the protests “had nothing to do with service delivery concerns as greatly exaggerated in the mainstream media”.
“Msukaligwa Municipality did not receive any written memorandum from the angry protesters relating to service delivery concerns.”
However not everyone in Wesselton is a “comrade”, hellbent on facing off with the state – headed by a previous generation of comrades, who many believe have forgotten their cadres.
At the small shopping complex that was the scene of violent clashes with police last week, we find Sibusiso Madi. Beside him are crutches; his foot is in bandages. He is not political, says he was not involved in protests, and just wants to return to work.
Madi is one of few residents who are gainfully employed, but today finds himself sharing an uncomfortable set of steps with the many unemployed youngsters who walk the streets of Wesselton.
“I was on my way to work. I was coming to catch my bus over there (he points at a nearby bus shelter). The police didn’t ask any questions, they just shot at me. I had to run away.”
What’s worse, as a result of the protests, Madi was trapped in the burning township from Monday, when he was shot, until Thursday. “No ambulance could come in. And the community wouldn’t let any cars in. I was prepared to pay R40 for a cab to go to the hospital. But they couldn’t come in,” he says.
As a result of the protest, he has lost out on the R1 600 he would have earned in a fortnight doing construction work on the N17 highway.
Selina Ngwenya is also just trying to get by. She sits on a pile of used coal, looking for pieces that can be used. She does not have electricity and uses the coal for cooking. “Sometimes we spend the whole day doing this. We have to look for pieces that are big.”
She also took part in the protest: “We want toilets, water and electricity.”
Khayelihle, a new part of the township, none of the roads are tarred and there are a few green portable toilets in the area.
We see about five taps placed throughout the shack settlement, and residents are seen walking back and forth with containers.
A group of women, including Sibongile Khosi and Hlezipho Khumalo, complain that the portable toilets are often not collected for two weeks. They also believe the area needs more taps.
Will Khosi vote this year? “I won’t vote. Who will I say I’m voting for? How long have I been dirtying my ID book with stamps, going to vote? I don’t trust anyone.” - Sunday Independent