The Outrage of South Africa’s Poor Threatens Their President, Jacob Zuma

The Outrage of South Africas Poor Threatens Their President, Jacob Zuma

South African President Jacob Zuma has a problem: the very underclass
that swept him into office last April on his promise to deliver them a
better life have run out of patience, and they’re venting their outrage on
the streets. Little more than a year after the country’s impoverished black
townships erupted in a wave of violence directed at migrants from
neighboring African countries, tires are once again burning on the streets
as crowds protesting the lack of resources in their communities clash with
police in images sometimes reminiscent of the apartheid era. Recent weeks
have seen a wave of angry and at times violent protests and strikes break
out across the country. First, construction workers building stadiums for
next year’s FIFA Soccer World Cup — the world’s most popular sporting
event — walked off the job demanding higher wages. This week, it was the
turn of those with no jobs, as unemployed people living in squatter camps
went on a rampage, stoning vehicles, destroying buildings and looting
stores to vent their anger over lack of jobs, houses and basic services like
sanitation and electricity.

As the global economic downturn drags South Africa into its first recession
since the end of apartheid, such protests are likely to escalate, posing an
acute dilemma for the President. Zuma catapulted himself into the leadership
of the African National Congress and then the presidency by
championing the interests of those left behind by the market-friendly
economic policies of his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki. Now those who elected
Zuma are demanding that he deliver on his promises, as the trade unions that
played a key role in his power play within the ANC demand payback, and the
fury of the economically marginalized escalates. But the recession and
South Africa’s potentially vulnerable position in international capital
markets give Zuma little room to stray from Mbeki’s policies.

The trade unions are certainly feeling empowered. After a weeklong work
stoppage on facilities being built for the World Cup — a move
which grabbed international headlines and frayed nerves in a country fearful
of the consequences of falling short in its moment of global prestige as the
first African country to host the tournament — construction workers
negotiated a 12% wage
increase. Their success is likely to spur unions in other key sectors of the
economy to follow suit. Teachers, miners and doctors have also recently
staged strikes, and retail workers are about to do the same. But for those
suffering without jobs, wreaking havoc seems to be the only path to

In the port city of Durban on July 22, 94 members of a group called the South
African Unemployed People’s Movement, most of them older women, were
arrested after they stormed into supermarkets and grabbed food off the
shelves. “This is just the tip of the iceberg, and I myself cannot stop the
people, because they are angry,” the movement’s chairwoman, Nozipho Mteshane,
told the Star newspaper. The next day, as similar protests continued
in areas around Johannesburg, the Western Cape and the northeastern province
of Mpumalanga, the government warned that it would not tolerate further
violence. “We are not going to allow anybody to use illegal means to achieve
their objectives,” the national minister for local government, Sicelo
Shiceka, told a radio station.

Protests over the lack of services are an ongoing phenomenon that
periodically flare up on a larger scale, say analysts, who view them as a
symptom of the widespread despair felt by those who remain mired in poverty
15 years after the formal end of apartheid. Last year’s wave of xenophobic
attacks, which left 62 people dead, were fueled by many of the same
long-standing grievances over unemployment and lack of housing. While the
ANC points to its record of building 3 million new houses and delivering
electricity, water and sanitation to rural areas, unemployment — officially at 23.5%, though experts say it is actually much higher — is
rising, and some 8 million people still live in shacks.

The mood among the poor hasn’t been helped by the fact that wealthier South
Africans have so far escaped the brunt of the recession. And the anger may have been fueled by the fact
that many of the same politicians whose job it is to speed up delivery of services to the poor are conspicuously flaunting their own wealth. Two
Cabinet ministers have drawn fire in Parliament this month for splurging on
luxury cars at taxpayers’ expense.

Many of those starting to take to the streets now voted for the ANC but
feel they have been forgotten by a government indifferent to their
plight. And the government has allowed such sentiment to fester too long
without adequately addressing it, says Hennie van Vuuren, head of the
governance and corruption program at the Institute for Security Studies in
Cape Town. “If anything, it was Thabo Mbeki’s government that turned its
back on these protests and did not address them,” he told TIME. “You have
this massive alienation taking place at the local level. People are taking
to the streets because they feel there is no other way to get their voices

“The African National Congress has responded to the new surge in
popular protest with the same patrician incomprehension under Jacob
Zuma as it did under Thabo Mbeki,” wrote Richard Pithouse, a politics
lecturer at Rhodes University, in the Business Day newspaper. “It has
not understood that people do not take to the streets against a police
force as habitually brutal as ours without good cause. Government
statements about the virtues of law and order, empty rhetoric about
its willingness to engage and threats to ensure zero tolerance of
‘anarchy’ only compound the distance between the state and the faction
of its people engaged in open rebellion.”

Where Mbeki suffered politically for maintaining the aloof bearing of a
philosopher king, Zuma’s man-of-the-people story and his common touch
allowed him to trounce his rival — but it will take him only so far. “It
will take real leadership to engage with the problems in these communities,
and that has been sorely lacking,” says Van Vuuren. “[Zuma] was
the candidate who said he wanted to engage better with citizens, and that he
is fundamentally pro-poor and a man of the people. This is the moment he
needs to be doing it.” But translating his promises into policies that can
restore economic growth and deliver jobs and services to the millions who
desperately need them will require a lot more than a common touch.

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