A wave of protests has erupted in townships across South Africa over shoddy housing and public services, adding to pressure on President Jacob Zuma to deliver on promises to fight poverty.
Police fired rubber bullets on Tuesday to break up about 200 protesters in Thokoza township outside Johannesburg, where they stoned police cars in anger at their dire housing conditions.
That followed a riot one week earlier in Diepsloot, also near Johannesburg, where two police cars were destroyed, buildings were burned and passing cars stoned in protest at moves to demolish shacks in order to build sewage lines.
More worryingly, a protest in eastern Mpumalanga Province on Sunday took on anti-immigrant colors as shops owned by foreigners were looted and burned.
That sparked anxious memories of the xenophobic attacks that swept the country one year ago, when 60 people died and tens of thousands of foreigners fled townships for refugee camps.
Protests over poor public services have soared this year, according to Municipal IQ, which monitors municipal services.
Poor South Africans have staged 24 major protests so far this year, compared with 27 in all of last year, the group said in a statement.
“We’ve got high levels of unemployment, the whole world is suffering from an economic downturn and that’s not making it any easier,” said Adrian Hadland, a director at the Human Sciences Research Council, a think tank that advises on public policy. “Part of the frustration is local government is very uneven, and that is often the level of government where things are most keenly felt and expressed.”
Zuma’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) last weekend called for an audit into municipal services, with the aim of aiding — or sometimes pressuring — cities to improve their performance.
“The ANC put service delivery of local government at the center stage,” ANC spokesman Ishmael Mnisi said. “Now we realize that our councillors in the municipalities might be needing intervention.”
“We need to directly fix the issues at hand, not the symptoms of the problem,” Mnisi added.
Since the end of apartheid in 1994, South Africa has made strides in improving housing while expanding access to clean water and electricity, building 2.8 million houses in 15 years.
But more than 1 million families still live in shacks without power, often sharing a single tap among dozens of households. The problem has heightened as South Africa is at the height of winter, with freezing temperatures in Johannesburg and other parts of the country.
“In the absence of electricity, a roof over your head, and running water, it is keenly felt,” Hadland said.
Zuma took office two months ago, after campaigning on promises to step up the fight against poverty in a country where unemployment is officially at 23.5 percent but is believed much higher.
“There is quite a serious problem in the sense that there isn’t just a straightforward way of resolving it, because the state structures are poorly managed,” said David Bruce, of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.