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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Jacob Zuma face au défi des réformes économiques

by Pierre Barbancey

South Africa’s President Faces the Challenge of Economic Reform

Anger is rising in the townships over the housing shortage and social difficulties. Hundreds of people have been arrested by the police.

Translated Saturday 25 July 2009, by Isabelle Métral

For the first time since the end of apartheid in 1994, economic recession has hit the African continent’s first economic power. The recession is likely to aggravate the great poverty that still plagues the country, unless strong measures in favour of social justice, like those listed by the country’s new president Jacob Zuma, are quickly taken. Poverty is rampant. Over one million families still live in shanty towns (against four million at the time of apartheid); about 43% of the population make do with less than two dollars a day and nearly 40% of the working-age population are unemployed.

Decent housing wanted

Over the last days, demonstrations, some of them violent, have broken out in townships to demand decent housing and better access to public services (essentially water and electricity). On Wednesday, the police shot rubber balls at demonstrators who were blocking a road south of Johannesburg. On the previous day, police forces dispersed a crowd in the same way in the township of Thokoza, not far from South Africa’s economic capital. In the north-western province of Mpumalanga, near the Mozambique border, demonstrations took a xenophobic turn as stores that belonged to foreigners were looted and set fire to. A hundred people were arrested.

For several years now, spontaneous revolts have regularly broken out to alert public authorities. Worse still, in May 2008, social anger turned against African immigrant workers, essentially from Mozambique and above all from Zimbabwe. About sixty foreigners were killed on that occasion and thousands of others fled the neighbourhoods in which they lived.

The ANC (African National Congress), Nelson Mandela’s and Jacob Zuma’s party, as well as the other Alliance forces, the South African Communist Party and the Trades Union Congress COSATU, are facing a formidable challenge. Beyond the human tragedy of xenophobic violence, the issue at stake is the speeding up of political and economic reform. As SACP’s general secretary Blade Nzimande pointed out, all notion of “African rebirth”, unless backed by radical economic reform to improve workers’ and poor people’s living conditions (including the taking on of capitalism’s predatory practices on the continent) can’t be anything but the people’s new modern opium.

In the last April election, the ANC pointed at the problems that South African society is facing: lack of access to basic services, housing shortage, corruption…. It put the fight against poverty at the top of its agenda. The ANC also meant to break away from Mbeki’s (Zuma’s predecessor) economic policies, that gave priority to privatisation and competitiveness in the South African economy. “We have a high rate of unemployment, the whole world is hit by the economic crisis: that does not make things easier,” explains Adrian Hadland, head of the Social Sciences Research Committee.

Frustration comes partly from inequalities in the functioning of local authorities. “Last week-end, the ANC called for the launching of an audit for municipal services so that they can improve their performance. It is at this level that corruption is truly thriving. The allocation of housing, for instance, is in the hands of some councilors who make decisions without consulting anyone. Although 28 million homes have been built since 1994, the harsh winter climate in the southern hemisphere led hundreds of people to revolt when their corrugated iron shacks in squatters’ camps were pulled down at Diepsloot, near Johannesburg, in order to install a sewerage system in the neighbourhood. In June, President Zuma alerted public opinion over the performance of municipal workers and more generally over the country’s administrative services which he said “worked too slowly”.

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