STANDERTON, South Africa — Protesters have barricaded a major highway with rocks and burning tires, clashing with police who fired on them with rubber bullets. Youths retaliated with slingshots and threw rocks.
The protest Thursday evoked images from decades earlier, when township residents took to the streets to fight apartheid. Now the issue is the government’s failure to improve the lives of poor South Africans since democracy replaced legal racial separation.
More than 150 people have been arrested this week in protests that have spread from Standerton, about 90 miles southeast of Johannesburg, to at least four other towns in eastern South Africa.
On Thursday, a police vehicle was set alight by protesters near a stadium that will be used for next year’s World Cup in the provincial capital of Nelspruit, police spokeswoman Sibongile Nkosi said. And miles away in Diepsloot, a poor settlement north of Johannesburg, 19 people were injured when police fired rubber bullets at protesters.
Some people believe violent protests should be jettisoned in a developing democracy. Take Ellen Mgaga, an 18-year-old who should be preparing for high school final exams that start next week, but her school is closed because of protests in her town.
“It’s been bad what they have been doing. How am I supposed to get an education?” Mgaga said as she stood in front of the blackened remains of the library in Sakhile township on the edge of Standerton.
The protests have left residents too scared to leave their homes to go to work and nearby businesses have suffered. Government clinics have been closed for fear of staff being targeted, forcing mothers with sick children or ailing old men to walk miles.
The residents of Sakhile accuse the mayor and her council of corruption and demand they resign. Most residents have water and electricity but point to the neglected sports field, dirt roads and shacks as signs of how little development there has been.
Lebogang Ganye, 23, one of the many unemployed youths who have been involved in battles with police in Sakhile, said he voted for the African National Congress in April out of loyalty to the party that ended apartheid.
“They promised us jobs, opportunities, a better life. But according to us it’s a worse life,” he said. “We have to vandalize things to get them to act.”
A decade and a half after the end of apartheid, many South Africans feel that they have not benefited from economic growth that has made many government and ANC officials rich.
Jacob Zuma, a popular figure among the poor who won the presidency in the April vote, promised to speed up delivery of houses, clinics, schools, running water and electricity as well as create jobs. But he also has acknowledged the difficulties amid South Africa’s first recession in nearly two decades.
“Without a shadow of a doubt the protests have got worse since the elections,” said Udesh Pillay, head of the Center for Service Delivery at the Human Sciences Research Council. “This will escalate and it will escalate fast.”
Zuma, who paid a surprise visit in August to a town that saw earlier protests, has been responsive to concerns and is still held in high regard, but people have grown increasingly “suspicious and less enthused” about other party representatives, Pillay said.
The protests are being fueled to a great extent by concerns over corruption and disengagement with local governments.
Municipalities have long been South African’s weakest tier of government. Many local councils are financially strapped, mismanaged or riddled with corruption. They also carry the greatest loads. Municipal managers are battling to overcome decades of apartheid planning that saw white suburbs well-serviced while black people lived in abysmal conditions on the edges of towns and cities.
The violence has also been blamed on politicking ahead of 2011 municipal elections. Others say it is the work of troublemakers.
“This has nothing to do with service delivery. This is criminal,” said Chris Nkosi, a senior official from the district mayor’s office, as he surveyed the gutted municipal offices in Siyathuthuka, one of the eastern South African townships hit by protests this week.
The building, its wooden beams turned to lumps of ash and its zinc ceiling twisted and peeling, was built in 1999. It housed a library, which had just received a new stock of books.
“If you are crying for services, how can you do this?” Nkosi said. “It makes no sense.”
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