“They only need votes and after this we won’t see them anymore,” said one of the dejected residents of Naledi township in Soweto.
The day of the by-election, Wednesday 11 November 2020, marked exactly seven months since the residents of Naledi last had electricity. Angry community members, including children, took to the streets and blockaded the entrances to Atamelang Primary School, which was being used as a voting station, with rocks, tree branches, burning tyres and whatever else they could find.
They locked the school gates to stop people from voting. The busy Kgaribe Street was shut down. Police intervened, broke the locks and convinced the protesters to allow voting to go ahead.
On the closed street at the school, only ANC and EFF gazebos were visible, even though the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) and Shosholoza Progressive Party (SHOSH) were also contesting the by-election. After a while, voters came in small groups to their party station to confirm their details before they went to vote.
Inside the school, things were orderly. Voters wore face masks and were sanitised by Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) officials before they entered. The voting process was quick and smooth despite the late start.
Naledi falls under ward 130 with Emdeni South. It is an ANC stronghold, but was fiercely contested by the ruling party and the EFF. In 2019 during the provincial ballots, the EFF gained 19% of the votes while the ANC’s share declined from 80% to 73%.
The trouble with Eskom
ANC provincial chairperson and Gauteng Premier David Makhura visited the area on election day to calm the situation and promised residents that he would follow up on their demands with Eskom. “I made a commitment to the community here, I’m going to make sure that these dates that Eskom has committed to restore power here in Naledi. I’m going to follow up as the premier of the province. I’m going to follow up with the leadership of Eskom and office of the minister responsible for public enterprises,” he told the media.
“The elections will come and go but the community needs access to electricity,” he said, addressing the media at the protest site on Kgaribe Street.
Eskom has promised residents that by 27 November electricity will be back. The community is sceptical, however.
Community members say that they have been to the Eskom regional offices several times, helped by the EFF and the ANC, but nothing has come of the visits. As a result, they used the by-election as leverage to show their frustrations, hoping to draw attention to their plight.
Eskom not the only faulty party
Residents added that two days before the by-election, EFF members promised to go with them to Eskom’s Megawatt Park headquarters in Sunninghill – but they did not show up. Then, on Tuesday 10 November, ANC members phoned Eskom headquarters in Megawatt Park, in the presence of Naledi residents, to ask about the problem but were told that the power supply company did not have an electricity box for them.
These two incidents have crushed the hopes of the community, who say they no longer have faith in the parties. “That is why I’m saying that the EFF and the ANC are both lying like Eskom,” said Lerato Moloi, who lives in a shack with her husband and five children. Moloi runs an ironing service and her husband gardens in houses around the area.
Tshepiso Nkosi, who has been involved with the community’s activism since the beginning of the electricity crisis, echoes Moloi’s words. “Both the EFF and ANC knew very well that on this day we were not going to vote,” she said.
Although Nkosi admits that many residents do not buy electricity, she never thought that someday they would spend months without it. “Our president promised us that when the lockdown started that we won’t have electricity problems because this virus does not want coldness,” she said.
Struggles without power
Nkosi’s main concerns are the many pensioners in Naledi who are adversely affected by not having electricity. “We had a couple of funerals of elderly people because of the coldness,” she said.
Nkosi is a mother of two and lives in her family home with other unemployed adults. “This has affected me at home because it has caused tension. As we don’t work, someone might think that he or she spends more than the other,” she said.
“Now we wake up earlier than before to prepare the coal stove for children to wash before they go to school. We no longer have the old coal irons and now when you have washed the clothes you need to pack them nicely without much creases so that when the children go to school, they look presentable.”
Her younger sister has a child who suffers from asthma. To make matters worse, the family could not afford to buy coal so the children were sent to nearby fields to look for wood.
“We are sick. We are tired and we are fed up,” said self-employed Mongodi Moloi, 33 (not related to Lerato Moloi). According to him, in Emdeni, the township next to Naledi, the new electricity box exploded but was repaired within a month because residents protested on the streets.
“It is now our time to do the same. We are not fighting as such, we are asking,” said Moloi.
No power, no livelihood
Moloi’s business has been severely affected by the township not having electricity. “I fix heaters, radios, TVs, microwaves, stoves and fridges that have now turned into wardrobes that I now put clothes in,” he said.
He used to make around R9 000 on a good month, but now he hardly makes ends meet to support his three children. He and his team were adamant that they would not vote. “We even have our identity documents but how are we going to vote because we are not happy,” he said, pointing at his pocket.
Mmanusi Molefe, 37, shares a four-room family home with seven relatives. She is unemployed, and the family survives on her grandmother’s social grant. She has two children who also receive social grants. But the money is not enough. “As soon as I buy them some things with their money, it is finished,” she said.
Life has been difficult but since the electricity crisis, the situation has become worse. The family can no longer cope with buying food bit by bit.
“If we could have the electricity back, things would be fine. We can even buy groceries that will last us the whole month,” she said.
On Thursday 12 November, after the protests, the IEC announced that 40 political parties contested the by-elections, with a total of 444 candidates. Of those 444, 19 were independent candidates. Even though the commission expressed concerns over the disruption in wards 130 and 13 in Amahlathi Municipality in the Eastern Cape, they were pleased at how smooth and peaceful the elections were in the 95 wards across 55 municipalities in the nine provinces.
“These elections were extraordinary in that they were the first to be held in South Africa under Covid-19 conditions and were the largest number of by-elections held in a single day in our history,” said the IEC’s Janet Love.
The by-elections are done and dusted, and the residents of Naledi are still without electricity. The ANC has retained the ward, with Thulani Buthelezi as the new councillor. The wait for the residents now is to see whether Eskom will meet their 27 November promise.