Category Archives: Peter Wonacott

Wall Street Journal: Soweto Turns Anger on ANC

Soweto Turns Anger on ANC
As World Cup Opens, South Africa’s Poor Complain of Neglect


SOWETO, South Africa—In 1994, the township of Soweto helped midwife a new nation, toppling a white racist regime after years of protests and electing Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first black president.

Today, Soweto is home to upscale shopping malls, tidy row houses and a state-of-the-art sports stadium that will host Friday’s opening of the World Cup. As barriers to government and jobs have fallen and foreign investment has picked up, a black middle class has emerged, a cornerstone of the new South Africa that will be showcased during the month-long soccer tournament.

But prosperity has spread only so far. And 16 years after the end of white minority rule, many here now complain of oppression of a different sort: government neglect.

This time, the sing-song marches, angry slogans and burning tires are most often directed at the African National Congress, the ruling party of Mr. Mandela and South Africa’s current president, Jacob Zuma.

Undulating over Soweto’s hills in southern Johannesburg are oceans of corrugated metal shacks. In these settlements, roads are dirt, toilets are outdoors and electricity is pilfered from traffic lights. Incensed citizen groups have protested the lack of public services, turning Soweto and other townships into hotbeds of unrest once again.

“At least under apartheid, there was employment—people knew where to go for jobs,” says Maureen Mnisi, a spokeswoman for the Landless People’s Movement in Soweto, a group that is fighting for housing and land for the poor. “Officials were accountable.”

In poor sections of Soweto and other black townships in South Africa, residents are up in arms. They say the government is more interested in World Cup glory than the condition of their communities. WSJ’s Noah Rosenberg reports.

The protests highlight a widening rift between the ANC and the black poor it professes to represent. They are part of a broader picture of disarray cascading down from the top of South Africa’s ruling party, as it grapples with infighting and the personal troubles of its polygamous president.

“I’m not concerned that the country is in crisis,” says Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at University of Johannesburg. “I have no doubt that the ANC is in crisis.”

As the World Cup approaches, the nation shows little sign of splitting apart along racial lines. South African flags flying from cars and the diverse following for the national soccer team are public displays of widespread patriotism. For many, the fan frenzy is a reminder of how South Africa’s 1995 rugby world championship—made famous by the Clint Eastwood movie “Invictus”—broke down barriers between blacks and whites.

“It is clear that millions of our people have waited for years and look upon this tournament with hope, pride and a sense of belonging,” President Zuma told a press conference Sunday. “Sport has always played an important role in our historical mission to build a united, non-racial and prosperous South Africa.”

But also ahead of the World Cup, South Africa has become an increasingly fractious place. Although race remains a source of tension, economic concerns have stoked many of the protests.

Last month, the nation endured a debilitating three-week transport strike before the state-owned ports and rail operator settled on a hefty wage increase for workers. Cosatu, an umbrella group of trade unions and a powerful ANC ally, has warned of possible labor strikes during the World Cup, if authorities do not reverse double-digit electricity price increases. Last week, several thousand hospital workers walked off their jobs over pay issues.

Meanwhile, a hodgepodge of social activist groups have threatened marches during the World Cup. The South African Institute of Race Relations, a think tank in Johannesburg, estimates that 25 “major centers of protest” have surfaced this year, nearly all in black townships. The World Cup has galvanized protesters, largely because of the leverage they have over a state anxious to host a trouble-free event, according to Frans Cronje, deputy chief executive of the institute.

“It’s a useful moment to protest because the stakes are so much higher for the government,” he says.

President Zuma didn’t respond to interview requests.

The stakes are also high for the party behind the government. The ruling ANC continues to hold the vast majority of seats in parliament, but it’s come under pressure from a vocal opposition and a freewheeling local media. Like liberation parties in other countries, such as the Indian National Congress of India, the ANC has struggled to show it can deliver political freedoms as well as a better standard of living for the poor.

Nearly a century old, the ANC was founded to unite Africans in the quest for human rights. In the 1950s, the organization gained a mass following with campaigns that defied South Africa’s laws of racial segregation, a system known as apartheid. In the 1960s, the ANC took up arms against the government. Many ANC leaders, including Mr. Mandela, ended up in jail.

It wasn’t until 1990 that the government of South Africa—under pressure from township protests and economic sanctions from foreign countries—lifted a ban on the party. Mr. Mandela and others were released from prison and, in elections four years later, catapulted into power. Since then, the ANC has focused on racial reconciliation with whites and extending new opportunities for blacks through affirmative action policies.

The affable Mr. Zuma, the son of a domestic worker, became president last year by winning the top post at the ANC. Neither charges of corruption, linked to a government arms deal, nor a rape trial derailed his path to power. (The corruption charges were dropped and Mr. Zuma was acquitted of rape).

But personal troubles have become a part of his presidency. Earlier this year, the president admitted to fathering a 20th child with a woman who wasn’t one of his three wives or one fiancée. The affair sparked an outcry, even in a country where polygamy is legal. Mr. Zuma apologized to his supporters and paid damages to the family of the woman, whose father, Irvin Khoza, is the chairman of South Africa’s World Cup Organizing Committee.

Mr. Zuma’s troubles aren’t only personal.

ANC leaders have feuded with Cosatu, a government ally, over allegations the leader of the trade union group made about government corruption. Meanwhile, the head of the powerful ANC Youth League, Julius Malema, was threatened with suspension and ordered to attend anger management classes for lashing out at Mr. Zuma, among other offenses. Some officials and analysts see the political battles as the opening salvos within the ANC to succeed Mr. Zuma, after his term as party head expires in 2012.

Beyond the infighting, Mr. Zuma confronts major economic challenges. Despite South Africa surfacing from recession this year, and a binge of World Cup infrastructure spending, the overall job picture hasn’t improved. Unemployment hovers at around 25%.

While Mr. Zuma assumed the presidency with a reputation as an economic populist, he has steered clear of steps that would frighten foreign investors. For example, the president and his ministers have reassured global miners that nationalization isn’t official policy, even as he has tried to appease the party left by allowing debate on the subject.

Still, foreign investors worry about political stability, violent crime and the huge uneducated black underclass giving rise to both. Business executives wonder how long Mr. Zuma will be in the job after appearing to lose political capital with his personal peccadillos and failure to staunch party infighting sooner.

Some experts argue that the protests in townships are indeed a wakeup call for a government that has ignored its black underclass at its own peril. “We were never a rainbow nation, never a miracle,” says Sipho Seepe, a director at the South African Institute of Race Relations. “We created a myth of success without the hard work.”

The makeshift settlements of Soweto show how much hard work is left to do.

On a recent Friday in Elias Motsoaledi Village, protesters sang and danced to anti-apartheid songs, but these days the goal of their struggle is reliable electricity and decent housing.

The mud-puddle pocked village is about five miles from South Africa’s flagship stadium, the more-than $400 million Soccer City, which will host the opening World Cup match between South Africa and Mexico. Motsoaledi residents say they are angry that funds have passed over them for the soccer stadium. One cardboard sign says: “We vote 4 basic services not for the World Cup.”

The protests are led by Lucky Ngobeni, chairman of the Concerned Residents of Elias Motsoaledi Village. Mr. Ngobeni voted for Mr. Mandela. But now, he’s protesting a successor who he accuses of ignoring people like him.

“Zuma pretends he doesn’t know what’s happening here. He knows,” says the 33-year old part-time security guard.

Mr. Ngobeni, who prefers to be called Comrade Lucky, has been plunked by rubber bullets and arrested several times, but continues to court confrontation. He says that burning tires and smashing windows attracts crowds and police, which in turn draw media attention and politicians who normally would avoid him.

“We can wait six months for a meeting” with a top city official, says Mr. Ngobeni, striding along the open sewage canals of Motsoaledi. “Burn a police car and he’ll be here in an hour.”

In an email, the Gauteng Provincial Government Department of Local Government and Housing says that feasibility studies for housing and sewage projects in the settlement have been approved and are awaiting contractors. The department didn’t respond to questions about protests.

The militant edge to the protests is matched by the fiery rhetoric among Soweto residents. At a recent meeting of the Concerned Residents of Soweto, an umbrella organization of different groups of the township, the talk was of how the ANC has forgotten those who supported them in the apartheid years and brought them into power.

Some issue angry threats. “We are going to struggle against Zuma and his coterie until he runs out of this country,” declared Thandi Bamalekane, to the applause of the others.

But the mood is somber when discussion turns to how electricity prices are rising out of reach for ordinary residents and possible plans to charge people for drinking water. A change of government hasn’t lifted living standards for those living in the settlements, according to Ben Tau, one of the members of the Concerned Residents of Soweto.

“We were victims of apartheid. We are victims of democracy now,” he says. “It’s only the name that’s changed.”

President Zuma announced recently that he’s reconfiguring the government to speed up delivery of services to the poor. He has also paid visits to troubled townships to inspect recent work and defuse tensions among residents.

One of them is Siyathemba Township, a mining area in the country’s east. After recent public service protests, Mr. Zuma promised to report back on government progress resolving the problems. On a Saturday afternoon last month, the president returned to speak to an audience under a green banner, “Changing the Way Government Works.”

Mr. Zuma received an earful from locals. Signs in the crowd criticized a decision to place the township under the administration of another province that’s viewed as poorly administered. Clinics, schools and police were considered too few and far between. Some jeered his ministers who spoke before him.

“Put down your placards,” the president urged the crowd when he reached podium. “I have seen them.”

Mr. Zuma reminded the crowd that he grew up poor and understood their grievances. He promised the government was working on plans to improve public services. He concluded by singing a popular anti-apartheid song, “Bring Me My Machine Gun.” The crowd cheered and danced along with him.

After walking off the stage, the South African president told a small group of reporters that people needed to be more patient. “We must not be agitated,” he said. “We must leave the matters to us, the government.”

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