/ 23 July 2009

SA govt ‘will not tolerate violent protests’

South Africa’s government will crack down on violent protests which erupted this week over delivery of basic services, a Cabinet minister said on Thursday.

Police fired rubber bullets and teargas on Wednesday at township rioters demanding better services and more jobs, in one of the biggest challenges to President Jacob Zuma since he took office in May. Scores have been arrested.

Handling the crisis will be a major test for Zuma, who pledged to do more to help the poor as the main plank of the ruling African National Congress’s (ANC) election manifesto, but is constrained by financial woes in Africa’s biggest economy.

”We are not going to allow anybody [to] use illegal means to achieve their objectives. We are saying this is a government that has been elected democratically, anything that is done must be done within the law and the Constitution,” Cooperative Governance Minister Sicelo Shiceka said on Talk Radio 702.

Police said calm had returned to Siyathemba township, southeast of Johannesburg, after four days of unrest. The violence in flashpoint Siyathemba and other townships increased uncertainty after a series of strikes.

The unrest, with scenes reminiscent of violence against foreigners last year that killed 62 people, also undermined South Africa’s hope of showing a positive image less than a year before the country hosts the soccer World Cup.

Tough police measures could further alienate residents of grim townships, glaring reminders of decades of apartheid when youths also burned tyres and barricaded streets in rage.

And 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.

It also has to contend with trade unions, whose support was instrumental in Zuma’s rise to power, staging stoppages over pay and threatening further action.

Many say local officials of Zuma’s ANC have failed to provide jobs, housing, sanitation and medical services and have promoted a culture of nepotism.

Zuma’ spokesperson Vincent Magwenya said South Africa’s leader believed there was no justification for violence.

”While residents may have genuine grievances the president’s view is that there can be no excuse for violence or destruction of property,” Magwenya said on Talk Radio 702.

In an opinion piece in Business Day, Richard Pithouse, who teaches politics at Rhodes University, accused authorities of taking the problem lightly.

”Government statements about the virtues of law and order, empty rhetoric about its willingness to engage, and threats to ensure zero tolerance of ”anarchy” only compound the distance between the state and the faction of its people engaged in open rebellion,” he said. — Reuters