Residents of Alexandra bring the township to a standstill as they embarked on a service delivery protest. Picture: ALON SKUY
Residents of Alexandra bring the township to a standstill as they embarked on a service delivery protest. Picture: ALON SKUY

A cheer swept through the crowd, as hundreds of residents waited restlessly in the autumn sun for President Cyril Ramaphosa to arrive in Alexandra.

The enthusiasm shifted, tracking movement through the crowd, until a man ran up to the temporary stage and the reason for the cheer became clear. As he hoisted a tyre above his head, the crowd erupted. Another resident shook a box of matches — a sinister symbol of what could follow.

Last Thursday, that tyre did not become yet another sacrifice on the altar of anger. But the remnants of the tyres burnt in the lead-up to Ramaphosa’s visit to the township remained, more than a week after service delivery protests first broke out in the area.

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The township of Alexandra was established in 1912 — the same year as the ANC. Today, its streets tell their own story — one that needs no politician to explain why protest seems a legitimate reaction. Sewage streams along some streets, and houses congregate on the banks of the Jukskei River and in other areas — illegal structures set up without proper infrastructure being put in place.

Under the banner of the "Alex Shutdown", residents of Alex, as it is colloquially known, have done exactly that. They’ve spent the past two weeks protesting about poor service delivery, illegal housing and crime.

They had initially called on Joburg mayor Herman Mashaba to hear their concerns and receive a memorandum — but Mashaba sent public safety MMC Michael Sun in his stead. Sun was ridiculed and shouted down;  the protesters wanted Mashaba — who never came.

Enter the ANC, its political machine in full force. The party sent Gauteng’s No 1 citizen, premier David Makhura, to listen to the committee leading the protests. Then, last week, Ramaphosa was deployed to the area.

Ramaphosa’s visit to Alex was politically significant, coming less than a month before the May 8 national and provincial elections. The stakes are high — particularly in Gauteng.

The ANC is trying to secure every vote it can get, as opposition parties — sensing a party on the back foot — look to push it below majority support in the province and force a coalition government.

Given that the ANC barely hung on to Gauteng in the general election in 2014, when it garnered 54% of the vote, it has its work cut out.

According to the DA’s internal polling, the ANC is the weakest it has been in the province in months. If it loses Gauteng, Ramaphosa’s party runs the risk of being relegated to being a more rural ruling party.

In circumstances such as these, every vote can make a difference. So the ANC took the gap left by Mashaba, deploying its heavy hitters to convince Alex residents to go out and make their marks at the polls — which is exactly what Ramaphosa did.

The residents listened as he made promises to address the issues they had raised. While some cheered as Ramaphosa spoke, others looked on, stone-faced.

Speaking from an ANC stage, Ramaphosa shifted the blame to the DA-led local government. "It’s upon the shoulders of local government to clean up the area so that the rats can be dealt with," he said. "We cannot allow people to live among the rats; we cannot allow our people to live among the filth
I have seen here."

He promised that something would be done this week to address residents’ concerns. But it’s much too soon to see if Ramaphosa’s visit will make any difference. And besides, this is politics, and empty promises abound ahead of an election.

But what Ramaphosa did do was acknowledge residents’ issues; the people were heard.

When Mashaba finally made it to the area, it was in neighbouring Marlboro Gardens on Monday evening — to present the city’s Integrated Development Plan (IDP).

Mashaba was shouted down and left unable to address the crowd; a group of disrupters — some wearing ANC-branded clothes — tore up the IDP documents and sang struggle songs,.

Both the DA and Mashaba — who leads the coalition government in SA’s biggest-budget metro — have been very clear about placing blame at the foot of the ANC. They claim the party, which governs the province and the country, has instigated the protests that have sprung up around Gauteng over the past two weeks.

DA leader Mmusi Maimane went further at a briefing on Sunday where, flanked by DA mayors, he referred to protests taking place in other DA-led municipalities.

Maimane said protests have broken out in Ga-Rankuwa, Mabopane, Pretoria West, Soshanguve, Winterveld, Orange Grove and Pennyville, Soweto, in Gauteng, as well as in Khayelitsha, Lwandle and Happy Valley, Blackheath, in the City of Cape Town.

To add to the tally, there’s the protest in Ennerdale, in which mobile classrooms were reportedly burnt down — a protest clearly aimed at the Gauteng department of education under the ANC.

When asked whether she agrees with the DA assertion that the protests are effectively ANC-sponsored anarchy, Municipal IQ economist Karen Heese says she cannot comment on the DA’s reported evidence, but adds that she thinks it would be difficult for anyone to stage protests across multiple municipalities across the country.

"That said, clearly a number of community leaders in places like Alexandra will be ANC-aligned, so there may well be an overlap between protest and political issues," Heese says.

But April has been busy — as have the first few months of 2019, says Heese.

Municipal IQ data shows that from January to March this year, 67 protests took place around SA, with the Eastern Cape claiming the designation of most protest-prone province. It shows that Alexandra residents’ turn to protest to express their anger is not exceptional.

Heese’s colleague, Municipal IQ MD Kevin Allan, says the surge in protests — to a new record in the first quarter — was "widely anticipated".

He adds: "It is likely that protesters are making the most of the opportunity to draw politicians’ attention to their grievances in the run-up to elections."

Heese says there’s typically an uptick in protests around general elections in SA — which makes the protests this year nothing out of the ordinary.

On Monday evening, on the sidelines of Mashaba’s cancelled IDP meeting, Tshepo Msoki, 32, who was born and bred in Alexandra, took issue with Mashaba and the DA’s characterisation of the protests as politically motivated. He says the issues raised by the community are very real.

"It is literally there, it is physically there," Msoki says, referring to the very obvious problems in Alexandra, such as the illegally built houses and the refuse in the streets. "Alex has turned into a dumping ground."

But it’s also clear that politics is at play, he says.

It will only be seen at the polls which of the parties will win the votes of angry residents, who have seen no change in their quality of life after 25 years of democracy.

Over the next three weeks voters will have to decide whether they can stomach opportunism and blame-shifting — as politicians use their anger to campaign against each other — in the hope that someone, anyone, will do something. Or whether they will do what they did in the 2016 local government election and simply stay at home on voting day to express their dissatisfaction. That’s what cost the ANC Joburg.