Video: Police fire rubber bullets on demonstrators

updated 10/15/2009 12:38:36 PM ET 2009-10-15T16:38:36

Ellen Mgaga's high school final exams start next week, but her school is closed as protests against the government's failure to improve lives of poor South Africans have intensified.

The rioting — with police firing rubber bullets Thursday to disperse rampaging crowds — evokes images of anti-apartheid protests. Some believe such tactics must be jettisoned in a developing democracy.

Over 150 people have been arrested in protests that have spread from Standerton, about 90 miles southeast of Johannesburg to at least four other towns in eastern South Africa this week. 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, the area's police spokeswoman Sibongile Nkosi said.

Also Thursday, 19 people were injured when police fired rubber bullets at protesters in Diepsloot, a poor settlement north of Johannesburg.

"It's been bad what they have been doing. How am I supposed to get an education?" said Mgaga, 18, standing in front of the blackened remains of the library in Sakhile township on the edge of Standerton on Wednesday.

'It's a worse life'
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 running battles with police in Sakhile, said he voted for the African National Congress in April out of loyalty to the party which 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 of the past decade that has made many government and ANC officials rich.

Jacob Zuma, a popular figure among the poor who won the presidency thanks to 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.

Municipalities have long been South African's weakest tier of government. Many local councils are financially unviable, mismanaged or riddled with corruption. They are 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.

'This is criminal'
The violence has also been blamed on politicking ahead of 2011 municipal elections. Others say it is the work of unlawful 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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