When he was 13, Celi Xaba protested against South Africa’s white-minority government over the lack of water in his township. Now 29, he’s still protesting, and there’s still no running water in Tokoza. But this time he’s fighting the black-led government that promised salvation from poverty and unemployment.
As thin as a whip, he stands in the bitter winter wind, his bare feet shoved into sandals a couple of sizes too small.
“There’s no services here. No water, no electricity, no toilets,” he said. “And there’s still nothing happening. The people just feel like animals here.”
Violent protests recently have erupted in about 20 South African townships, including Tokoza, with people looting supermarkets and shops, blocking roads and burning tires, vehicles and buildings to protest the lack of jobs, housing, water, sanitation and electricity.
In other protests, members of unions affiliated with the ruling African National Congress unleashed a wave of strikes. They included municipal workers who marched and overturned trash bins in Johannesburg on Monday, demanding a 15% pay raise.
“This is not going to stop,” political analyst William Gumede predicted. “I think this thing is going to snowball.”
For President Jacob Zuma, the protests mark the end of a very short political honeymoon.
But why now, three months after elections won convincingly by the ANC? Many of the protesters helped reelect the ANC after 15 years in power, while the unions were among Zuma’s strongest backers in a campaign that saw the party promise to deliver major improvements to people’s lives.
“The dissatisfaction of the people has not gone away because of the election,” Gumede said. “During the election, Jacob Zuma and his allies really raised expectations even more. Zuma mobilized all this unhappiness to his side during the election.
“People want it now, and it’s not happening. People are at the end of their patience.”
Many of South Africa’s urban shack dwellers are poorly educated rural people, drawn to the city since the early 1990s hoping to find good jobs and money. Instead, most end up unemployed, living in squalor.
“I voted for the ANC because they promised they’re going to give us these things. They promise every time they come to give us water, electricity. It’s a long time now, but nothing changes,” said Joseph Leshomo, 51, of Ramaphosa, a shantytown east of Johannesburg.
“They come to us saying they’re going to do this, do that. I think I never, never, never go to vote again. Never!”
The winter wind in Ramaphosa is malicious. It flings dust at the jobless men such as Leshomo, hanging about aimlessly in front of their tin shacks. It penetrates the thin clothing of women pushing plastic barrels of water on wheelbarrows. It snatches the ball away from children scrabbling in a dusty roadside soccer game, and sandblasts a small, ragged boy kicking a plastic bottle.
In Alexandra township, north of Johannesburg, the picture is similar. A sullen stream of water pulses listlessly near the shacks, its banks littered with stolen shopping carts and cascading mountains of plastic bags used by residents as improvised chamber pots. It’s not safe to walk 100 yards uphill to the communal latrine in the middle of the night, so people use the bags and fling them into the Jukskei River.
In “Alex,” people tell stories of huge rats that invade their shacks at night, as bold as wild dogs, biting sleeping children.
Last week, Zuma urged South Africans to give his government a chance to address the problems.
“We are paying serious attention to the protests. We meant what we said during the election that for as long as our people lived in such conditions, we would not rest,” he said in a speech in Durban.
But instead of employment growth as Zuma pledged, data released Tuesday showed that 267,000 South Africans lost their jobs in the second quarter, while 302,000 gave up looking for work -- meaning they are not counted in the government’s 23.6% unemployment rate.
Prince Mashele, an analyst with the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, predicted that the riots would spread. He said many poor black South Africans were more willing to riot over bad services and unemployment than to vote against the ANC.
“The question is, are [people] crazy to vote the ANC into power and then chase them away a few months later? In the collective psyche of the people, people see no alternative to the ANC,” he said. “Instead of saying, ‘Let’s vote out the ANC,’ they say, ‘Let’s be violent,’ and chase out those same people they voted in a few months before. Unfortunately, it’s destabilizing for our democracy.
“The ANC has created this myth that there’s no other party that has the capacity to govern any part of this country,” he said. “The danger is you are creating a sense of helplessness on the part of the people. They get to the point where they think it’s the ANC or nothing.”
When ANC ministers and other officials spent millions on new BMWs or Mercedes-Benzes just after taking office, it deepened the public’s alienation, Gumede said.
“The greatest security threat in South Africa is poverty,” he said. “And in the face of this poverty, you have this conspicuous consumption by the leadership. People are very angry about this, and about corruption and nepotism.
“What Jacob Zuma needs to do now is to show leadership,” Gumede said. Zuma and the ANC “argued they would be different, and they’re not doing anything. Nothing has happened.”