South African Protest Surge Overshadows Zuma Keynote SpeechMike Cohen
Incensed over the lack of electricity, water and houses that endures two decades after apartheid ended in South Africa, shantytown residents near Pretoria rioted, torching a community hall, library and clinic.
The protest last week was one of about 94 this year in which a total of at least 10 people have died, according to the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies. The scenes of police firing tear gas and live ammunition at demonstrators armed with spears and stones may overshadow the state-of-the-nation address President Jacob Zuma delivers today to Parliament in Cape Town, three months before general elections.
The unrest comes as a recent opinion poll showed the ruling African National Congress may win less than 60 percent support in the May 7 elections for the first time since it took power in 1994. At the same time, more than 70,000 workers at Anglo American Platinum Ltd., Impala Platinum Holdings and Lonmin Plc are on strike for better wages.
“Whenever it is time for elections, a lot of protests happen because it is the only time people see the politicians’ faces in the community,” Bandile Mdlalose, general secretary of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a slum-dwellers’ advocacy group, said in a Feb. 10 phone interview from the coastal city of Durban. “People are not fools any more. They want delivery. They are getting annoyed of being misled by politicians.”
About a quarter of the workforce remains jobless, as many as 10 million people lack formal housing and 2.3 million households don’t have proper toilets, while income disparities rank among the widest in the world.
Almost half of South Africans say the country is moving in the wrong direction because of concerns about the cost of living and the nation’s ability to lure foreign investment, research company Ipsos said in a statement yesterday.
The study, conducted among 3,564 adults in November, showed 48 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with the path the country is on, up from 29 percent in 2009, the year of the last general election. Thirty-four percent of people were satisfied, compared with 56 percent in 2009.
Support for the ANC plunged by 10 percentage points to 53 percent from a year earlier, according to Ipsos.
The rand has slumped 5.2 percent against the dollar this year, extending last year’s 19 percent plunge. Foreign investors have sold a net 21.3 billion rand ($1.9 billion) worth of the nation’s bonds and 5.6 billion in shares this year, according to data from JSE Ltd., which runs the nation’s stock exchange. The rand fell 0.5 percent to 11.0641 per dollar at 9:50 a.m. in Johannesburg.
Zuma’s own reputation has been sullied by revelations that the state spent more than 200 million rand upgrading his private rural home, a renovation the government says was a necessary security upgrade.
The depth of public anger against his leadership surfaced in December when he was jeered by thousands of people at a memorial service in Johannesburg for the late Nelson Mandela, the nation’s first black president who died on Dec. 5 at the age of 95.
“This is definitely an election speech for Zuma,” Abdul Waheed Patel, managing director of Ethicore Political Consulting, said by phone from Cape Town. “He will come in for criticism if he doesn’t acknowledge that there are certain parts of this country that are up in arms. I think he will defend people’s right to vent their frustrations about the government, while calling for law and order to prevail.”
Zuma, who’s seeking a second term, is expected to spell out plans to address housing and services backlogs. The ANC campaign manifesto released last month pledged to create 6 million jobs through a government employment program, provide 1 million homes for the poor and improve education and sanitation.
Official data shows the government has built more than 3.3 million free houses for the poor since 1994, connected 7 million homes to the electricity grid and made potable water available to 92 percent of the population of 53 million.
The worst of this year’s violence occurred last month when four people died in Mothotlung township near the town of Brits, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of Johannesburg during a protest over water shortages.
Six policemen have been suspended and 14 others sanctioned over the killings, which are being invested by the Independent Complaints Directorate, an oversight body.
“People feel they are more likely to be heard now than at any other time because the ANC has got to go and appease people and try and attract votes,” Georgina Alexander, a researcher at the South African Institute for Race Relations, said in an interview from Johannesburg.
The police also stand accused of shooting dead two men who were with 1,500 people that attacked a police station with rocks and gasoline bombs near the northeastern town of Tzaneen on Jan. 28 following a murder in the area. Fifteen officers were injured and 19 police vehicles were damaged.
“The upsurge in protests and deaths at the hands of police is clearly concerning, as it belies broken politics and public trust at the local level,” Anne Fruhauf, southern Africa analyst at risk evaluator Teneo Intelligence said in an e-mailed response to questions on Feb. 10. “The protests here tend to be uncoordinated and confined to poor urban areas. Overall political stability is not at risk.”
Police used stun grenades yesterday to disperse ANC supporters seeking to prevent a protest march by about 1,500 members of the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, in downtown Johannesburg.
The government has defended its handling of the unrest.
“There is no culture of impunity within the police service,” Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa told reporters in Cape Town on Jan. 24. “We are a caring government and therefore there is no carte blanche that we give to our officers to kill innocent people who protest.”
The longer communities are wait for basic services, the greater the potential for violent protest, said Alexander.
“In many instances these people have tried to use the appropriate avenues to have their problems resolved by local authorities and for whatever reason this has failed,” she said. “The violence could therefore be an expression of the feelings of frustration and disappointment felt by these communities.”