South African President Jacob Zuma faced the first critical test of his presidency on Wednesday as violent protests at a lack of basic services spread in South Africa’s townships.
Residents hurled bottles and stones at police, who responded by firing rubber bullets and teargas. Smoke from burning tires filled the air as thousands marched in a show of anger at poor services in townships in Johannesburg, Western Cape and the northeastern region of Mpumalanga.
Immigrants said they feared for their lives and sought police protection as there were reports of foreign-owned businesses being looted in Mpumalanga. Last year 62 people died in xenophobic attacks.
The unrest comes as frustrations boil over at the government’s record, 15 years after apartheid, at providing townships with basic services such as electricity, running water, housing and sanitation.
Koos Bezuidenhout, chief executive of the workers’ interest group the United Association of SA, warned that “dissatisfaction with poor service delivery or the complete lack thereof at municipal level is now spreading like a veld fire through South Africa.”
More than 100 people have been arrested during the last week. Protesters pelted cars with stones and blocked a highway near Johannesburg on Wednesday. At Siyathemba township, 89km southeast of the city, protesters demanding jobs and better schools clashed with police and threatened the local mayor.
Residents in Meyerton, south of Johannesburg, occupied farmland in invasions similar to those in neighboring Zimbabwe. They were protesting at being evicted from their temporary settlement. Demonstrations also turned violent for a second day in Thokoza township, where residents want better housing and services. Thirty-five residents are due in court.
Eljah Ngobese from Thokoza told the Citizen newspaper: “We are tired of empty promises. All this government want from us is a vote, nothing else. They are treating us as monkeys. How can they shoot us while we are protesting for our rights?”
Bongani Mazibuko, who has been unemployed for years, added: “This government is rotten to the core.”
Cars and houses were burnt in the Diepsloot township last week, in protest at plans to tear down makeshift shacks to make way for a sewage pipe.
Zuma put service delivery at the heart of his election campaign this year, pledging to root out corruption and incompetence. But along with South Africa’s worst recession in 17 years, his first months have been hit by strikes involving doctors, miners, teachers and construction workers building facilities for the 2010 World Cup.
The township protests reflect growing impatience among the poor, said William Gumede, author of Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC.
“Zuma has less of a honeymoon than his predecessors, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbkei,” he said. “People are at the end of their patience and are giving the African National Congress [ANC] one more chance to deliver.
“During the election campaign people’s expectations of what Zuma could deliver were really worked up. People were given the sense that if they voted for the ANC one more time, there would be delivery immediately,” he said.
He added: “This is now going to snowball and get bigger and bigger.”
Fifteen years after the ANC won its first election, more than 1 million South Africans still live in shacks, many without access to electricity or running water. The gap between rich and poor is also growing. Nearly 3 million houses have been built, but the allocation has been prone to nepotism and corruption.