Mamaila Bila flips amagwinya (vetkoek) in a charred yellow zinc bowl brimming with hot oil. She’s slouched over the bowl as flames from the wood fire simmer beneath the furnace. The years of hardship are etched on her face. Bila was cooking for eager voters lining up outside Tsutsumani voting station in Extension 7, Alexandra.
Wearing a worn-out apron over her modest dress, Bila, 61, braved the cold weather with her sons Samual Mdluli, 42, and Jabulane Bila, 37, not only to vote but also to fend for their next meal.
The family woke up at 2am to start a fire and set up their selling spot a few metres from the white tents of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), perched on a former dumping site.
By 10am, Bila was on her second batch of dough balls. Business was good. Waving her inked left thumb, Bila said she cast her vote at 7am when the station opened.
Mdluli said he takes turns with his brothers and sisters to run the family’s vegetable operation, and they share the cooking of amagwinya to support their family of 12.
The family lives in a two-bedroom RDP house a few streets away from the polling station.
They hoped to sell all their stock, which included cigarettes and sweets, to the 4 000 voters who were expected to vote at the station.
Disillusioned and dreaming of meat
By midday, the voting station’s presiding officer, Zandile Majola, confirmed that 916 people had voted. Some voters also queued for Bila’s amagwinya, which were selling for R1 each.
Although Mdluli voted, he remains disillusioned with the governing party because of the appalling conditions in Alexandra.
Mdluli shares the frustrations of residents who shut down the township during a recent protest for housing. “Most of us are not educated because of suffering and poverty in our families, and I thought the certificate of security that I have will help me get ahead with those qualifications.”
Shoving a log into the fire, Mdluli said they collected wood nearby to start the fire before dawn and were hoping to make enough money to buy meat by the time the polls closed at 9pm.
Doubt shadowed his face as Mdluli said: “Today, because of these elections, at least maybe today we can even eat meat.
“We take time before we eat meat because we are so many in the house. We live on vegetables because we also sell vegetables.”
Raised ANC, but critical
Mdluli wanted his vote to guarantee him his own RDP house and a job so that he can take care of his wife and two children. His lives in a tiny RDP house with his extended family.
After leaving school in grade 8 because of a lack of resources, Mdluli started washing taxis in the area. He said scouting for work has been unsuccessful even though he lives close to an industrial area.
“Sometimes we travel to Joburg by foot. We go there looking for a job and when we come back later, there is still no food because there was no one to open the market. Maybe Mama went to the clinic and the kids are at school. So then we have to start from scratch and make the magwinyas so that when the kids come back from school, they can also eat.”
Raised in an ANC home, Mdluli boycotted the party’s rally at Ellis Park over the weekend and criticised the failing health system. He said residents are often sent home untreated because once nurses have reached a quota for the day, the don’t see any more patients.
“So you will wake every day at 4am to make your way to the clinic and, if you don’t have taxi fare, you are forced to walk to the clinic and there are criminals in the road and they are robbing us because of the poverty in this place.”
Alexandra has a population of 179 624 and is administered by the City of Johannesburg, led by DA mayor Herman Mashaba with the support of minority parties. Mashaba blamed the ANC for orchestrating protests ahead of elections.
Like most of the voters, Mdluli wants land, jobs and decent living conditions. “There is no space for no one, not even a passage. We are not living freely.”
The young voter
Some young voters were walking the streets of Alex instead of queuing at the polls.
But Nonhlanhla Nkosi, 20, a first-time voter who lives with her parents and two siblings in an RDP house in Extension 7, said: “It is my first time voting. I am so excited and I am so nervous. I don’t know how to explain it.”
She believes her vote is a weapon against corruption and the failure to create employment.
Her father is the sole breadwinner and works at a juice factory. He pays for her cosmetology studies at Dobsonville College. She said her parents are proud of their RDP house built by the ANC-led government, but she is convinced a new party should be given a chance to govern.
“I feel like I am heard already,” she grinned after casting her vote.
A job and decent shelter
About 25km away, 39-year-old Fundiswa Jaca, a resident of the Imbuzini shack settlement in Soweto was preparing supper for her family of seven in a two-roomed, threadbare shack. Smoke poured from the brazier.
Jaca’s children huddled around the fire and watched their mother scramble in the kitchen to make supper. Jaca doesn’t live far from the home of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in Orlando West.
Orlando is a township in the urban area of Soweto with a population of 40 603, according to the 2011 census.
Pointing at the famed Mandela house on the hill across from her rundown shack full of holes, Jaca said she voted despite living in abject poverty.
She lived in Dube Hostel in Meadowlands East before moving to the area more than eight years ago. “I applied for a house in 2008.” Living on the government child support grants for five children aged between aged three and 13, Jaca said all she wants is a job and a decent shelter.
Jaca left Umzimkulu in KwaZulu-Natal more than a decade ago to seek a better life in the City of Gold.
‘Freedom has not graced my family’
Unlike Nkosi, Jaca was not happy about casting her vote for the third time. “There is nothing to be happy about. What am I happy about? I have been voting for years but freedom has not graced my family.”
Hardened by poverty, Jaca points to the illegal electricity connections that criss-cross the settlement, saying locals can’t afford to pay for electricity because of high unemployment.
Eskom is trying to recoup the R17 billion owed to it by South Africa’s largest township, but residents such as Jaca and Khetiwe Sipika, 39, who are renting in Orlando, said Soweto can’t afford electricity.
Sipika rents a room in Orlando for R1 200 a month and, like Jaca, voted at the Orlando West voting station. The mother of two painted a grim picture of the villagers living in her birth town of Matatiele in the Eastern Cape.
Back in Alexandra, Mdluli was chuffed with the day’s takings and said the family bought a full chicken to share between the 12 of them. “Today was better than most days, we won’t sleep on an empty stomach.”