Ace comes to town

2011-05-14 15:49

At a busy intersection in Meqheleng township, a group of hostile youths crowded around Free State Premier Ace ­Magashule.

The first citizen of the province was campaigning for votes in the township which just a month ago resembled a battlefield.

This was when youths went on the rampage after the killing of community leader Andries Tatane during a service delivery protest in the nearby town of Ficksburg.

The night before, word got out at a community meeting that ­Magashule would be campaigning in the township the following day.

This was met by roars of disapproval, jeering and swearing, and promises of a hostile reception for the premier.

So on Wednesday afternoon, as his motorcade drove into the ­centre of the township, a group of youths loitering on a street corner jeered as Magashule climbed out of the Mercedes-Benz S600 ­sedan to canvass for votes.

The youths took him on.

They were angry and rude.

Some pointed fingers right in Magashule’s face, as if they might soon land a blow on it.They wanted answers. Why was he only coming to their township now, at election time?

Why had he not fulfilled the promises he made during the last election?

Why were the roads so bad? They wanted to know why there were no jobs and why contracts to build houses were given to ­strangers.

Some said they were literally living in shit because of burst ­sewerage pipes that had not been repaired in years.

Others said living in this township was like being in a remote ­village – they had had to search for water outlets every day for the past four years.

The confrontation was chaotic and they all spoke at the same time trying to get Magashule’s ­attention.

School children ran off to gather around Generations actor Seputla Sebogodi, who was part of Magashule’s entourage. But the older youths were not interested.

Magashule was their ­quarry.

The stand-off attracted a few drunken residents who sauntered over from a nearby tavern to join in the chaos.

Magashule’s bodyguards were having a hard time controlling the rowdy ones.

Eventually a bodyguard grabbed a heckler by his pants and led him away, giving him a serious warning.

Magashule stood his ground.

He appeared fearless and took on the youth, sounding firm and­ ­behaving like a school principal trying to restore order in a rowdy group of students.

“We can give you the keys to the municipal building. We can give you that, but then what? There is no need to fight. You can fight but at some point you will need to sit down and talk,” he said.

Order seemed to be restored.

They began to listen.

“Ntate Magashule!” said a tall young man wearing a green sweater. He was clearly angry.

“Ntate Magashule, I have lived here in Meqheleng for the past 28 years. For eight of those years I have not had a toilet. And now you want me to vote for you? Why must I vote for you?”

Another said he had been trying for the past 17 years to register his house under his name, to no avail.By now it was calmer. People took turns to air their views and challenges.

Magashule instructed one of his aides to take down the names and telephone numbers of every ­complainant, with promises that their problems would be attended to.

“I understand your anger. Trust us just one more time. You will see after the election,” he said before someone showed him to a nearby house.

It was the home of pensioner Masechaba Seleme.

A year ago, council officials demolished her old brick house and promised to build a new one for her in two weeks’ time.

She has been living in a zinc shack ever since, waiting.

Magashule expressed his displeasure. He asked if anyone knew a good builder. One man raised his hand.

“I’m a builder. Ask them, I have built many houses here,” he said, almost in desperation.

Some in the crowd agreed. ­Another man offered to work with him. Magashule eyed the man who claimed to be a builder.

“Are you sure you are a builder? I don’t want someone who is ­going to build a house that will collapse after two weeks.”

He promised that building work on the house would start in two weeks.

Again he asked an aide to take down Seleme’s contact ­details.

The old woman was speechless and weeping. Magashule’s entourage proceeded along Meqheleng’s ­muddy roads, avoiding potholes and stopping at intersections to distribute ANC flags and T-shirts.

Later, as Magashule concluded his mission, I asked him what he thought of service delivery in Meqheleng and if he believed that last month’s protests were ­justified.“The protests were about genuine concerns around service ­delivery.

It is also clear that a lot of companies that are contracted to provide services are failing ­government. It also shows that some of our municipal workers are simply not doing their work.

“My impression is that there are a lot of challenges. We need to ­interact more with our communities to understand the situation on the ground better,” he said.

ANC flags were hoisted high in the streets as dusk fell on Meqheleng.

Young and old were dressed in yellow T-shirts bearing the smiling face of President Jacob Zuma.

However, as the blue lights of Magashule’s motorcade flashed across a sky that was covered in a layer of smoke from paraffin and wood fires, I wondered if, on election day, the people of Meqheleng would prioritise queuing at the polling stations to vote for ­Magashule’s party, or whether walking around the township in search of water would take precedence, as has become the norm.

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