“Are you a journalist?” the man asks me, pointing to the camera around my neck. There’s a desperate sense of anxiety in his voice and a wild expression in his eyes. He desperately wants to show me something- and he wants me to see it now! “Come with me,” he continues, grabbing my arm and forcing me forward before I could introduce myself. “I’ve got a story for you”.
It’s just passed eight p.m. on Election Day and I’m at a voting station in Mushongwe – an informal settlement in Saulsville, Pretoria. The overcrowded settlement is engulfed in pitch blackness and we navigate our way by means of candles and cellphone lights. A thick smell of raw sewerage hangs murkily in the air and the dust road is strewn with plastic, torn election posters and broken beer bottles. In front of me are a large number of people in a queue that bends and curves across two streets – most of them either holding cellphones or candles as they wait to make their way into the voting station.
“Would you vote in conditions like this?” asks the man whose now identified himself as Nelson. “It’s election day and the government has switched our lights off. How are we supposed to vote?”
With the advent of democracy came the promise of a better life for disenfranchised black communities. This is a promise that’s largely evaded Mushongwe’s residents. The infrastructure (or lack thereof) and the dire poverty etched in the trash-strewn community are a strong reminder that Apartheid was only twenty years ago. The residents, however, believe there’s something more to it. They’re crying sabotage.
“We’ve had electricity all along but now that the ballot boxes are here, there’s no electricity,” says a community member in the voting queue. “The government is sabotaging us. They know that they can’t win through the ballot so they’ve resorted to this,” he concludes.
His paranoia may carry some substance. Atteridgeville has a strong EFF support base, with the party’s recent ‘”Tshela Thupa” rally held at Lucas Moripe Stadium – a stone’s throw from Sausville. Even here in Sausville, most of the people in the queue refer to themselves as “fighters”, with some sporting EFF’s infamous red berets.
“The ANC says it’s provided a better life for all, but for who? How can they talk about a better life when we vote under candle-light? You know what that means? It means my vote is useless,” a man in the crowd complains holding up a candle. I ask him what his hopes for the country are.
“After today, I want to see change. The government must remove all these shacks and build us houses,” he begins. “And toilets. We want toilets here. Do you know how awful it smells here? It’s unacceptable.”
And this is the crux of the matter. These people aren’t asking for much. Just a concrete house with four walls, electricity and a flushing toilet. That’s all they are asking for. Our President reportedly didn’t ask for upgrades to his homestead and he got an amphitheater, a swimming pool and a chicken kraal. It’s a sad state of affairs.
With the darkness growing more pronounced, my editor suggests we head out to Hatfield. As I pack my equipment and head to the car, I survey Mushongwe for the last time. Mushongwe and it’s inhabitants seems to dissolve into the darkness. It renders them invisible. The same way their plight remains invisible to the government. As we drive out Mushongwe into Hatfield, the contrast is immediate: dust roads slowly turn into tar, shacks into double-storey houses and streams of trash into neatly manicured lawns with pot-bellied garden gnomes. While Hatfield’s streetlights flicker and dance above me I begin to wonder: when will it all come to an end? While we’ve made significant strides in our twenty year democracy, areas like Mushongwe should remind us just how much work our society still needs. And while the President sits atop his palace in Nkandla, the laymen of Mushongwe continue to bear the brunt of Apartheid’s legacy and this current government’s incompetence. The time for rhetoric has long passed. It’s time the governement enforces real and urgent change. Until such a time arrives, Mushongwe’s residents – and people just as poor as them, will remain invisible people.
Follow me on Twitter: @RofhiwaManeta
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