STANDERTON, South Africa – Protesters barricaded a major highway with rocks and burning tires Thursday, clashing with police who fired on them with rubber bullets. Youths retaliated with slingshots and threw rocks.
The protest evoked images from decades earlier, when township residents took to the streets to fight apartheid. Now the issue is the government's failure to improve the lives of poor South African's since democracy replaced legal racial separation.
More than 150 people have been arrested this week in protests that have spread from Standerton, about 90 miles southeast of Johannesburg, to at least four other towns in eastern South Africa.
On Thursday, 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, police spokeswoman Sibongile Nkosi said. And miles away in Diepsloot, a poor settlement north of Johannesburg, 19 people were injured when police fired rubber bullets at protesters.
Some people believe violent protests should be jettisoned in a developing democracy. Take Ellen Mgaga, an 18-year-old who should be preparing for high school final exams that start next week, but her school is closed because of protests in her town.
"It's been bad what they have been doing. How am I supposed to get an education?" Mgaga said as she stood in front of the blackened remains of the library in Sakhile township on the edge of Standerton.
The protests have left residentgreat extent by concerns over corruption and disengagement with local governments.
Municipalities have long been South African's weakest tier of government. Many local councils are financially strapped, 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.
The violence has also been blamed on politicking ahead of 2011 municipal elections. Others say it is the work of 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."