Protester violence prevents voter registration in Western Cape
(This article was published in the Weekend Argus, a weekly newspaper in the Western Cape province, South Africa, on April 10 2016.)
Written by Yazeed Kamaldien
A helpless policeman stood over the burnt remains of an Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) tent after protesters set it on fire and disrupted municipal election voter registration across Paarl and Wellington.
During what is the IEC’s last voter registration outreach nationwide, 600 protesters from Mbekweni township in Paarl launched senseless havoc a few hundred metres from their homes shortly after 9am yesterday.
Mbekweni resident Lucas Magwa, a member of the local committee organising protests, said residents marched to the Drakenstein municipality building near their homes because the local government “ignored” the township’s need for electricity.
Eye witnesses outside the municipality building did not want to be named “because it’s dangerous to be named” but said protesters “chucked the IEC tables”.
Magwa said: “We chased them away. We told the municipality we won’t listen to them. They ignored us. We are the leaders.”
By mid-morning protesters had burnt down two IEC tents and forced the closure of all 14 voter registration stations in Paarl and neighbouring Wellington, a 50-minute drive from central Cape Town.
Their disruptive service delivery protest started last week already, at the same time that President Jacob Zuma said the countrywide municipal election would be held on August 3.
The IEC said this was “not the official proclamation of the municipal elections” and “eligible voters can still register until the official proclamation”.
Magwa said their committee which represented “all the people who live in shacks” did not tell locals whether they should vote or not.
“But we told them we can’t vote until we get electricity. That’s all we want,” he said.
Magwa walked through the shacks to show Weekend Argus how people lived without proper access to water, toilets and electricity. He pointed skyward to dangling wires leading to homes that have electricity.
“We are taking electricity from houses and we are paying them. This is unsafe for our children,” said the father of two.
“Children are dying because of this. It’s uncontrolled. It can set alight.”
Nocawe Sitshixo, who lives in a shack with her six children, said she “won’t vote until we get electricity”.
“We use paraffin lamps and it can cause fires. Electricity is safer.”
When asked if they would disrupt the municipal election, Magwa said: “We will see what we will do.”
At the Lukhanyo Youth Development Organisation centre in Paarl, protesters had torn down IEC banners.
Centre manager Sydwell Magqazana said the IEC “told us to close it so they can’t get in”.
“This is negatively affecting voting. We understand their demand. It’s a valid demand. But there are so many better ways they can conduct their struggle,” said Magqazana.
“To vandalise… now how could we support their struggle? They could have come to us, as part of the community, and tell us their need.”
In neighbouring Van Wyksvlei in Wellington residents recalled how protesters ran down their street and set alight an IEC tent shortly after 10am yesterday.
Resident Kaatyie Williams said they had “heard in the week they had a protest at the municipality”.
“We heard they were throwing over cars and smashing windows. They said they would do this. We heard they were coming,” she said.
“They were running down the street. We went into our homes when we saw them throw petrol and burn the tent. The women had knives and cut the tent.
“We came out when they left and used water to put out the fire. People came to register but saw the tent was burnt.”
Paarl police had last week reportedly arrested 23 people from Mbekweni after they set on fire cars and marched on the municipality for electricity.
Another voter registration tent in Wellington was also burned yesterday.
Francina Lewis, whose shack is next to the open piece of land the tent was standing on, said she “thought my house would burn”.
“The flames were up to my fence. We got water and put the fire out,” she said.
The IEC’s Western Cape electoral officer, Courtney Sampson, said they had to temporarily shut down 14 voting stations when the protest started.
Sampson confirmed: “Two of our structures were burnt. We re-opened the stations except for three (of the 14) where people were traumatised.”
“None of our staff were injured but events like that traumatise people.”
Sampson said all stations would be open today (SUNDAY) for registration.
There were also “problems” with voter registration yesterday in Khayelitsha “but all the stations were functional”, said Sampson.
“The issues were community protests and discontent. There were two that started late because of protest action. That was resolved and they were open,” he added.
“In Manenberg there was gangware that closed one station.”
Western Cape police spokesman Captain FC van Wyk said protester damage was estimated at R25,000.
“No arrests were made as the crowd had dispersed. Instruction was given by the IEC that all voting stations in Mbekweni be closed,” said Van Wyk.
“SAPS (police) members started monitoring the group and they re-grouped outside the Mbekweni municipal hall. The crowd of approximately 500 was monitored as they marched throughout the Mbekweni area.
“The group dispersed in Drommedaris Street after being monitored until 12:40pm.”