Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at township protesters demanding improved services and more jobs on Wednesday, in one of the biggest challenges to President Jacob Zuma since he took office.
Thousands marched in a show of anger, saying they would escalate demonstrations if local officials from the African National Congress failed to deliver swiftly on promises to provide jobs, housing, and medical care.
Some burned tyres and hurled stones at police in armoured vehicles, who responded with tear gas. The violence increased uncertainty after a wave of strikes in Africa’s biggest economy, where Zuma took office in May.
The unrest in Siyathemba township, with scenes reminiscent of violence against foreigners last year that killed about 60 people, also undermined South Africa’s hope of showing a positive image with less than a year to go before the soccer World Cup.
”This was always going to be a problem for Jacob Zuma, a pro-poor government coming to power at the height of the global recession,” independent analyst Nic Borain said.
”This is going to be the real challenge for Jacob Zuma and his government … I don’t think it is a crisis for the Jacob Zuma government, but I think it is a challenge.”
Anger was largely directed at local officials. When Balfour Mayor Lefty Tsotetsi was transported in an armoured vehicle to address hundreds of angry residents, some holding pipes and bats, it was too risky for him to step out of the vehicle.
A police convoy drove him to a stadium through barricaded streets where he nervously replied to a list of demands from residents by promising to spend money on education, cut unemployment and build toilets.
They shouted back ”when? when? when?”, a question that has often been asked since the ANC came to power at the end of apartheid in 1994.
‘Rotten to the core’
Demonstrators later torched a house the mayor is building, said Police Superintendent Delisiwe Goodness. She said 99 people had been arrested in protests.
”This government is rotten to the core,” said Bongani Mazibuko, unemployed for years.
Poor South Africans complain they have not seen the benefits since white minority rule ended. Zuma pledged to do more to help them as the main plank of the ANC’s election manifesto.
But the government is limited by South Africa’s first recession in 17 years, as a result of the global crisis, and is wary of any policies that might discourage local or foreign investment.
Trade unions, whose support was instrumental in Zuma’s rise to power, have been flexing their muscles since he took office, with stoppages to demand more pay and threats of strikes in the world’s top platinum producer, also an important gold miner.
Protests turned violent for a second day in Johannesburg’s Thokoza township, where residents are demanding better housing and services. Thirty-five residents are due to appear in court.
Also on Wednesday, hundreds of protesting residents barricaded the R59 road in Kliprivier with burning tyres and rocks over the eviction of 29 families from a farm.
”A group of about 300 angry protesters in Kliprivier, south of Johannesburg, attacked the police over the removal of some families from a temporary shelter.
”Police then fired rubber bullets to disperse the crowd,” said police spokesperson Inspector Happy Nape.
No injuries were reported. — Reuters, Sapa