South Africa's Outraged Poor Threaten President

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Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

A protester holds a placard during a peaceful protest march in the Ramaphosa squatter settlement, east of Johannesburg

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 (ANC) 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 redress.

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 heard."

"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.