The past week has seen one of SA’s oldest townships, Alexandra, or Alex, shut down by a huge service delivery protest staged against the City of Johannesburg and its mayor, Herman Mashaba.

The protest has been an interesting one, playing out a month before general elections and receiving the attention and involvement of the three major political parties, the ANC, DA and EFF. The former is in charge of Gauteng, and the latter two are central to the multiparty local government that governs Johannesburg.

Alex itself is a fascinating place, with a proud struggle history, a unique situation and huge development pressures, the latest of which emerge from residents who are unhappy with bylaw management of illegal structures and electricity connections, and with the management of open spaces, parks and refuse collection.

These concerns are not dissimilar to those expressed by increasingly frustrated residents of the city’s ward 58, which covers Mayfair, Fordsburg and Pageview. But they are represented by a DA councillor, while Alex is represented by ANC councillors, some of whom have been vocal supporters of the Alex shutdown.

The DA and EFF have blamed the latest protest action — which has entered its second week — on the ANC, but organisers are adamant their grievances are simply around service delivery, even if they are being expedient in getting the attention of politicians before the election.

Alexandra is very old in the context of SA and Johannesburg’s history. Established in 1912 on a farm and named after the owner’s wife, it was proclaimed before the disenfranchising 1913 Natives Land Act, affording black people the rare opportunity of freehold title in an urban area.

The evolution of Alex into a more attractive neighbourhood remains a challenge as new arrivals pursue all available land.

The fast-growing township was managed by the Alexandra health committee until 1948, when it was placed under the direct control of the department of native affairs. Plans to demolish houses and replace them with single-sex hostels were successfully resisted by a group of anti-apartheid icons.

Attempts to revitalise the area since democracy have had only partial success, with sustained pressure on living space and xenophobic attacks rocking the community in May 2008 and forming the epicentre of that year’s blight.

Once considered too distant from Johannesburg to fall under the city’s management, the township now attracts new migrants drawn to its proximity to economic activity, even if it means living on the banks of the potentially lethal Jukskei River, or under electricity pylons. To this day the wards that comprise the township are some of Johannesburg’s poorest, and show up very clearly in colour-coded maps of poverty, sitting alongside some of the city’s wealthiest communities.

Measured by household income, the average Alex household is poor, certainly more so than the average for Johannesburg and Gauteng residents, with significant levels of unemployment (almost one-third of its workforce). But what is most striking about ward data is that almost a quarter of residents live in informal settlements. No surprise then that this is a pressure point.

Unfortunately, the evolution of Alex into a more attractive neighbourhood remains a challenge as new arrivals pursue all available land, making it imperative for the government to work not only at reducing backlogs but also to ensure effective law enforcement to curb illegal occupations, some of which are being blamed on the EFF.

While the shutdown has been endorsed by the ANC, it is plausible that community members, who avow that they are not representing a political agenda, are focused on genuine service delivery concerns, and that they are simply using the pre-election environment to put these under the spotlight.

It’s a high risk gamble. Certainly, the protest has caught people’s attention, with the DA’s premier candidate, Solly Msimanga, laying criminal charges against the ANC for instigating violence. ANC Gauteng premier David Makhura and President Cyril Ramaphosa have both committed to giving protesters an audience. But DA mayor Herman Mashaba, the man who can ultimately focus the activities of local government, has held off on visiting the township, presumably concerned that he will be seen to be giving in to a group of service delivery protesters or setting a precedent.

Attention has also spun into a series of national debates that may overshadow service delivery concerns. In one odious development ANC national executive committee member Tony Yengeni tweeted an image of tyres in the foreground of a meeting place that were said to be “waiting for the mayor”.

It is not yet clear what effect the protest will have on voters in what is likely to be a very tight race in Gauteng, although anecdotal evidence from pollsters suggests, curiously, that it may negatively affect the ANC’s support. One should not assume voters will conclude that there is poor service delivery by the DA-led council in Alex, or even if they did it would influence them to vote against the DA.

In Cape Town, there have been numerous protests in poorer wards amid allegations of bias against the poor by the DA-led council, yet the DA has increased its hold on power in the city. Accusations of ANC instigation of the protest may also not play well with voters, who might perceive such foul play in a negative light.

Ultimately, though, there is a risk that real issues of bylaw management and suboptimal service delivery will be lost in the political noise, which is unfortunate for the organisers o the shutdown, who have shown relatively tight control over protest action. Aside from the burning of some EFF posters, the protest has been relatively disciplined after initially disrupting work, schooling and traffic last week, and protest conveners have committed to let workers and scholars go about their business, as well as to protect the rights of foreign nationals. There have so far been no reports of anarchic looting and attacks on foreign national businesses, as is often the case during sustained protests.

It remains to be seen if attention, and meaningful remedial action, will shift back to the concerns of protesters, and whether the protest will meet the goals of Alex’s unhappy residents.

• Heese is Municipal IQ economist and Allan MD.