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Tens of thousands protest in South Africa

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Mar. 7, 2012: South African protestors march downtown Johannesburg, South Africa.AP2012

JOHANNESBURG -- Tens of thousands of South Africans marched peacefully through their main cities Wednesday to demand the governing African National Congress do more for the poor.

Police estimate 50,000 people marched in Johannesburg, South Africa's economic hub. Smaller crowds turned out in Cape Town and other cities and towns for protests called by the Congress of South African Trade Unions, a close ally of the ANC, but often among its sharpest critics. The federation, known as COSATU, linked the protests to two ANC economic policy decisions. But the theme was broader than a pair of demands.

COSATU is concerned that after 18 years in power, the party revered for leading the battle against apartheid has become complacent and needs to be pushed to replace corrupt or incompetent leaders with politicians who can deliver.

The marches come before an ANC policymaking conference in June and another meeting in December to elect top party leaders. The party that has been in power since the end of apartheid in 1994 is under pressure to show it can work more quickly to improve the lives of black South Africans, many of whom continue to live in poverty despite the economic growth and political freedom and stability that followed the end of white racist rule.

Support from across the political, racial and economic spectrum emerged for one of the demands COSATU made Wednesday, that the government scrap planned tolls to pay for road upgrades in the Johannesburg area. COSATU says tolls will make life more expensive for the working class. Middle-class drivers also have complained, and businesses don't want the cost of transporting goods to rise -- costs likely to be passed on to consumers. The main opposition Democratic Alliance party has vowed to challenge the toll plan in court.

COSATU also wants the government to ban companies that supply temporary workers, a goal that appeals to a narrower audience. COSATU says so-called labor brokers keep businesses from creating secure, well-paying jobs. Officially, a quarter of South Africa's labor force is out of work, but experts say the percentage would be higher if the discouraged and the underemployed were counted. Business groups have argued that instead of banning labor brokers, COSATU should work with them and the government to better regulate them.

Marcher Nomsa Nkosi, 46, took the day off from her job as a machinist at a clothing factory, losing a day's wage of 120 rand ($16). Nkosi said she has worked for brokers who offered no pension or security.

"No protection, no nothing," she said, saying her government was not doing enough for the poor. Some marchers waved posters with slogans equating labor brokering with slavery.

Fellow marcher Gertrude Mmutle, a 58-year-old department store saleswoman from Soweto, complained about the tolls.

"The government taxes us a lot, and they play with the money," she said. "South Africa is becoming a place where the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer."

In a statement, the ANC called Wednesday's demonstrations "unnecessary, but we nonetheless respect the right of those who want to protest."

The ruling party said it has responded to concerns that the tolls would hurt the poor by exempting mass transit vehicles like buses and taxi vans from paying. It added that the minister of finance, in his budget speech last month, announced the national government would contribute more toward repaying the international loans that funded the roadworks, and that that would bring tolls down.

The government also capped monthly toll fees at 550 rand (about $70), meaning no driver would pay more than that no matter how much he or she used the improved roads.

On labor brokers, the ANC said a solution would be found at the negotiating table, not on the streets.

Neren Rau, chief executive officer of the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said members across the country reported production disruptions Wednesday because supplies and workers did not arrive, or because workers asked to leave early. He said as many as half the port workers in Durban, in eastern South Africa, didn't come in because they had joined the protest or because of transportation problems related to the protest.

Rau added it was not the time to give foreign investors and international ratings agencies the message that South African labor was quick to protest instead of coming to the negotiating table with government and business.

COSATU leader Zwelinzima Vavi told the marchers in Johannesburg Wednesday there would be more protests if their demands were not met.

"Just as we made the apartheid system unworkable, we will make this system unworkable," Vavi said.