Sat, Feb 25, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Townships in revolt over ANC's failed promises


They resemble scenes from another era: angry crowds, clashes with police, shots, teargas and petrol bombs. Twelve years after apartheid ended, some townships are again burning. This time the target is not a racist white regime but the African National Congress, the liberation movement which swept to power in 1994 on a wave of euphoria and the promise of a better life for all.

The ruling party is facing a serious and occasionally violent revolt in downtrodden communities, resulting in no-go areas for its members. Councilors have been beaten, shot and burned out of their homes. Party meetings have been ambushed. Several local branches have disbanded or gone underground.

"It is not safe for me. I cannot go back in the current climate," said Papi Tselane, 44, one of 14 ANC councilors forced to flee the township of Khutsong after a mob destroyed their houses.

The councilors are living in a mining compound. Several councilors have stepped down, said Bobo Ndlakuza, the ANC's election coordinator for Merafong municipality, which includes Khutsong. "Some members think it is not worth their lives and just lie low," he said.

The party is being targeted in what was its heartland, the sprawls of shacks and low-cost homes where millions of impoverished black people live.

The cause of unrest is economic. People are fed up waiting for jobs and basic services such as electricity, clean water and sanitation. The service delivery protests, as they are known, flared up last year and have grown in frequency and passion in the runup to local elections on March 1. Khutsong, a township of 170,000, 65km from Johannesburg, has seen some of the worst trouble.

"We used to like the ANC because it brought freedom. But freedom is not enough," said Solly Nyathi, an unemployed 18-year-old.

As well as jobs and decent schools, he said, his community wanted fly-blown tin shacks replaced with decent houses.

"Until we get that it will be dangerous for the ANC," he said.

Nyathi said the ANC mayor would be killed if he entered the town. He pointed to the blackened shell of a councilor's home.

"The protests are not over," he said.

Brigalia Bam, chairwoman of the Independent Electoral Commission, is worried that a heavy police and army presence in Khutsong on voting day could spoil South Africa's reputation for peaceful elections.

"It will send a very bad signal," Bam said.

Paradoxically, the country is richer and more stable than ever before. Growth is touching 6 percent, consumer confidence is surging and the country's credit rating has been upgraded. A budget deficit of just 0.5 percent of GDP is the lowest in 25 years. Sales of vehicles and property are breaking records thanks to a growing black middle class.

Under President Thabo Mbeki the ANC has swept national and local elections with bigger margins than under Nelson Mandela, giving it a 70 percent majority in parliament and control of all nine provinces.

The party may lose Cape Town to the opposition Democratic Alliance in next month's ballot, and its support is expected to fall in five other big cities, but it will likely take most of the nearly 8,000 local government seats.

Compared with apartheid's death throes, when thousands died, the current protests are sporadic, largely bloodless and pose no immediate threat to ANC hegemony. Yet commentators say the political landscape could be shifting.

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