Khadija Patel: Something's got to give

In Bekkersdal last weekend, a pastor gesturing towards the taxi rank behind him, said, "We are in exile here." This did indeed feel like an entirely different country to the one we'd been driving through that morning. The road leading in to Bekkersdal was guarded by police, a sign we thought of heightened security ahead of a high-level ministerial visit to the township. But as we spoke to residents about their thoughts on the elections and the protests that had gripped the township these last few months, a feeling of surrealism to this place grew. There was a glut of highly armed police people circling the township, searching out the worst before it happened.

This did not feel like South Africa a few kilometres away. This place felt disjointed from the ostensible thrust of a country excitedly preparing for an election. And yet bizarrely, at the same time, Bekkersdal on that weekend felt like an uncompromising microcosm of all South Africa's challenges ahead of our fifth general election.

It's not that the election, as the rest of us experienced it, did not reach Bekkersdal. On that same day, the ANC held a rally attended by 500 people. We also watched as IFP volunteers put up posters bearing the smiling face of Gatsha Buthelezi. The outward manifestations of an election that we are used to seeing were visible there, but the tension in the community and the police presence felt altogether out of place.

We spoke to many people that day, trying our best to understand how people felt about the election, about the ANC and the chances of political change. Some people spoke to us freely, openly slamming politicians of all guises, for using Bekkersdal and its people as a proxy in a subversive power play. And nobody we spoke to had forgotten Nomvula Makonyana's "dirty votes" comment. Other people were more coy about their feelings. And still others regarded us suspiciously, what did we care anyway?

And throughout it all, the police presence was jarring. A few days later, one media agency would refer to the police deployed in Bekkersdal as "election peacekeepers", as though pockets of South Africa had been embroiled in a war, unbeknown to the rest of us.

There certainly was some merit to Bekkersdal being labelled a "hotspot" during this election. During voter registration weekends earlier this year, people were forcibly prevented from registering. And in some quarters of the community, people said a collective decision had been taken to boycott the polls as an act of protest against a system that continued to disenfranchise the majority of this community. Certainly government had realised that in order for an election to be held peacefully in Bekkersdal, an intervention had to be made.

On election day itself, journalists, particularly foreign correspondents, appeared to favour Bekkersdal as a vantage point of South African democracy, its foibles and the potential fora great unravelling. Politicians too, appeared partial to a pit-stop there.

All this attention, when people in Bekkersdal protest, is the culmination of years in which they have been systemically ignored by government, political parties and the media.

Yet the doomsayers were disproved. Bekkersal voted peacefully.

And when the votes were eventually tallied, the ANC had won Bekkersdal - dirty votes and all. Voter turnout was lower than the national average, but just shy of 70%, it was still an indication of a healthy interaction with democratic processes.

But what happens now, when there is no election to report?

Speaking of the so-called hotspots like Bekkersdal in his acceptance speech, President Zuma said on Saturday, "No community in our country should live in a state of turmoil." He pledged that the grievances of these hotspot communities would be addressed by the new government.

And yet, it's not just more government attention that Bekkersdal needs. More houses, better sanitation and recreational facilities only solve the surface issues.

Another man we spoke to pointed out that Bekkersdal is located in one of the wealthiest municipalities in the world - mine shafts dot the distant horizon, but the glitter is for mine owners alone. The people living in the shadow of the mines gain nothing from the riches beneath their feet. He said he feels hard done by and that the mines have as much responsibility for the people living in their midst as government does.

His words echoed the feelings of the pastor I had spoken to earlier. People are in exile here.

What Bekkersdal received these last few weeks was a giant Band-Aid. In the coming weeks, that Band-Aid will shrivel away. It will eventually fall off. And then Bekkersdal will be left alone with its own exposed wounds.

Khadija Patel is a writing fellow at the University of Witwatersrand's Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser).