Protests Turn Violent In South Africa

South Africa is quiet this morning after a wave of riots and protests erupted last week. The demonstrators called for improved basic services for the millions of people still living in the country's townships. Host Liane Hansen talks to BBC reporter Jonah Fisher about recent protests and violence in South Africa's townships.

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LIANE HANSEN, Host:

South Africa is quiet this morning after a wave of riots and protests erupted last week. The demonstrators called for improved basic services for the millions of people still living in the country's townships. Some feared the riots could turn deadly, like the widespread attacks that broke out last year against foreigners and killed more than 60 people.

The unrest also increases pressure on newly-elected President Jacob Zuma to deliver on election promises. He pledged to do more for his country's poor and provide basic services like water and electricity. The question is how much can Zuma and his party, the ANC, do in the middle of a recession?

We're joined now by the BBC's Jonah Fisher in Johannesburg. Welcome to the program.

JONAH FISHER: Thank you.

HANSEN: We mentioned the attacks last year against foreigners. Have last week's activity in any way mirrored the way that those other attacks started last year?

FISHER: Well, they have in some ways. I think people look back at last year and they see that there were demonstrations last year, which were associated with service delivery, which is what we're seeing at the moment. And then they mutated as frustration grew in the townships into attacks on foreigners living within those townships.

In the last couple of weeks, most of the protests have remained about service delivery in the townships here. In one instance, foreigners were targeted, foreign-owned shops were looted, and about 100 foreigners had to take shelter at a local police station. I think that's the reason why that specific township, which is in one of the provinces which neighbors on Johannesburg, was prioritized by the government.

They sent a minister straight out there because that's really the big concern here, that this frustration - which at the moment is about basic services like electricity, water, lack of housing - might end up being targeted on those foreigners, basically fellow Africans who've come to South Africa for economic reasons.

HANSEN: You mentioned a government representative. Has there been any sort of crackdown on these demonstrations?

FISHER: Well, the police have been active in the last couple of weeks. They've been in the townships. They've fired plastic bullets, they've fired teargas on the demonstrators. There have been clashes, police cars have been stoned and on one occasion set on fire. So, yes, the government has taken a pretty strong attitude.

This country has a fairly active history of demonstrations, but the government's making it pretty clear that the minute those demonstrations turn violent, then the police will respond decisively against them. And that's really what we've seen in the last couple of weeks.

Jacob Zuma, the new president here, has made it pretty clear that while he does understand to a certain extent people's complaints, the minute things turn violent, the minute they start blocking roads and burning tires in the streets, that's when it becomes unacceptable. And he backs the police 100 percent in their efforts for them to stop them.

HANSEN: In the few months that President Zuma has been in office, has he been able to make any progress on his promises?

FISHER: I think the simple answer is no. He's come into power two months ago in very trying circumstances - the first recession, I hear, in South Africa since the end of apartheid. His first promise was to create half a million jobs. In the last week or so, he's admitted that he's getting nowhere near that. In fact, South Africa has lost 200,000 jobs since he came to power.

At the moment, though, the demonstrators aren't pointing their finger directly at Jacob Zuma. The blame seems to be being put on local administrators, counselors in the townships who, for the most part, are still ANC, Jacob Zuma's party, but are a few tiers below him.

Now, Jacob Zuma has promised to try and address these concerns about local officials, about corruption, about nepotism, which exists at that level. But I think everyone accepts that it's going to take quite a long time to tackle what has become quite a deep-rooted problem.

HANSEN: Jonah Fisher is a BBC reporter in Johannesburg. Thank you.

FISHER: Thank you very much.

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