Profile of a town on fire
The fear of police brutality is so tangible in Ermelo’s Wesselton township that it is hard to separate it from the blanket of coal fumes that floats in the quiet night air.
Paranoia, too, is palpable as we talk to a group of youths in a tavern in Phumula, near the epicentre of recent rioting. As they regale us with their stories, which are repeated during our stay in Ermelo, they take turns in heading to the door, making sure that no police are inching their way towards the nondescript drinking hole.
A skinny, dark-skinned kid, who calmly whips me in a game of pool later, tells me that they are being intimidated by the police. They sometimes herd locals out of taverns into the road and force them to roll home.
The obese woman behind the counter and her teenaged son eye the scene closely. The guys quickly gulp their last quart and disappear into the night. The next morning, as we head back into the township, we pass a crew of municipal workers removing damaged traffic lights on Mabuza Street. Opposite them are two armoured police vehicles parked on the grassy verge, keeping a watch on the intersection where rubber-bullet shells still litter the pavement.
The fibrous remains of burnt tyres lie in the streets like giant blemishes on a diseased skin, a metaphor for the township itself. Damage to municipal property from the town’s explosion was estimated at R350 000.
The number of young people cruising the streets, even though it is mid-week, gives the township a school-holiday vibe. A youth we ask for directions to Thembisa, a section further north, offers to take us around.
We stop at a four-room house with coarse, greyish plastered walls on Mabuza Street, where 20-year-old Simphiwe Sibeko, a member of the Msukaligwa Community Committee (MCC), a group of upliftment committees that joined together in April last year, gives us her version of why Wesselton went up in flames. “We are fighting for jobs, nothing else,” she says, with her 15-month-old baby on her arm.
With a blanket wrapped around her torso, she reels off several common complaints — bribery for jobs, cracked houses as a result of coal-mine blasting and, of late, police who seem to fire rubber bullets indiscriminately. Outside the house where she rents a back room there is evidence of a fiery barricade, etched on the tarred street like a newly painted road sign.
“They shot at our house as well,” she says, pointing to a cracked window near the front entrance. “There were young kids standing around the yard and I was holding my baby. We had to run inside.”
She says the police are on a witchhunt and informants are helping them to compile a list of rioters. “The police come here calling out people’s names,” Sibeko says. “My uncle was detained, kicked around and tortured.”
Her zeal suggests the protests were the uncoordinated first steps of a baby learning to walk. Sibeko’s uncle, Sbusiso Sibeko, was arrested last Friday, under the pretext that he was a murder suspect. “I was beaten non-stop from Friday evening until 5.30 the next morning,” he says, speaking from a friend’s cellphone two days later. “They claimed they had footage of me committing acts of public violence but when I asked them to show it to me they refused. “They questioned me about my whereabouts and asked me to give them names of people that took part in the rioting.
“Then they said they wanted my gun. So they beat me until I told them that my father had a gun, which they went with me to pick up.” His father’s firearm was confiscated and he was returned to the police cells where he was held until the following Monday, when the charges against him were dropped. Sbusiso Sibeko claims he was severely beaten, hot water was poured on his head and he was kicked in the testicles.
Still traumatised and without a phone (which was allegedly also taken by the police), he was unsure where to lay charges, although he felt it would be futile. Nhlakanipho Dladla, a 16-year-old with a festering rubber-bullet wound on his elbow, says he and a group of friends were walking down the street from shops nearby when police tossed them into a van and drove them to the police station to fingerprint them.
Caught up in the crossfire
Further up the street in Thembisa, near the storefronts where the e.tv news crew was caught up in the crossfire, Mfanimpela Khubeka is eating chicken with some of his friends. He considers our request for a quick interview. A dark, muscular figure in canvas takkies, jeans and a matching blue shirt, Kubheka is young, charismatic and defiant. “Sure, we can talk,” he says, with a gap-toothed grin.
When I point to the police vehicles (a minibus and Casspir) in the middle of the vast tarred square, he gives them a dismissive glance: “I say whatever I want. I enjoy freedom of speech.” It’s a sunny day, so we walk across the yard and sit on the shady steps in front of Vuka Bottle Store, closed because the police, locals claim, emptied it of its stock.
“There is a curfew set for 7.30pm here,” says Khubeka, MCC chairperson. “Then they go from door to door looking for specific people.” The MCC, he says, has a mandate from the community and they engage with the mayoral council.
“Our memorandum has been growing and we are fighting against nepotism, bribery and for the mines to come up with employment strategies, skills development initiatives and youth economic development plans. We have the same manifesto as the ANC. We want a better life for all.”
Although municipal officials say they never received a memorandum from the committee, Kubheka says that he was on e.tv recently, brandishing a list of demands, dated January 27, which he says was signed by the municipal manager, Ace Dlamini.
On February 13, a day before the riots, the MCC held a community report-back meeting, which was followed later by a ward meeting in ward five, where the community began complaining about candidates being imposed on them. It seems that a combination of these two issues sparked the protests, although MCC members maintain ANC politicking is secondary.
“As you know there are camps in the ANC — they want us to be involved in their camp warfare,” Kubheka says. “The community is trusting the MCC to deliver on employment strategies and other issues.” As my interview with Khubeka draws to a close, he finally reacts to the posse of young men camped around the square that doubles as a car wash. They have been tense all day but when a bulky policeman conducts a lengthy cellphone call outside the police minibus and appears to be scanning the area, they become increasingly fidgety and disperse. Kubheka and two friends follow, asking for a lift to a house down the road.
A tavern owner corroborates stories of random police searches and the “roll home” torture tactics. She complains that police have been beating grown men and now that she has cut her operating time to 7.30pm, she is no longer able to pay her suppliers every Monday.
Muzi Chirwa, the ANC regional council secretary, says he has never heard of the MCC and believes that if they exist they are allowing people with ulterior motives to hijack their agenda.
Although a lack of basic services is obvious in parts of Wesselton and would-be ANC councillors are clearly jostling for position, the way the police are said to have responded to the current crisis suggests the emergence of a repressive beast reminiscent of the National Party’s “crossing the Rubicon” days. After a day in Wesselton, one can almost picture the Groot Krokodil doing cartwheels in his grave.
Responding to allegations of police torture, Captain Leonard Hlathi, Mpumalanga police spokesperson, says: “If anyone is claiming to have been tortured, the Independent Complaints Directorate, as the watchdog of the police, is there to probe those allegations. It is no use for them to complain to the media. “All members of the South African Police Service are guided by the law and behave themselves in a manner that is responsible while carrying out their responsibilities. I know for a fact that our members have been behaving very well, even in this instance.”
Hlathi says that of the more than 120 people who were arrested in connection with the protest, all had been released and 58 were out on bail. On Wednesday he said that the situation was quiet. But the message from the MCC seems to suggest that this was just the quiet before the eruption of another storm. “We have told people to calm down because people out there know there is a place called Ermelo,” Kubheka says as a parting shot.
“National must come here from Luthuli House and talk to us, except for Gwede Mantashe [ANC secretary general]. He called us ‘good fools’ because he believes someone has bought us. How can someone buy a whole community?”