JOHANNESBURG – South African President Jacob Zuma said his government provides public services better than any other African country, defending his record Monday against mounting and often-violent protests as he gears up for a re-election bid.
Zuma told a Local Government Association conference that since apartheid ended in 1994, governments led by his African National Congress party have built 2.5 million homes to house 10 million poor people, provided clean water to 6 million households and connected electricity to nearly 5 million houses.
But there is growing rage over failures to address poverty, massive unemployment and other problems that make this nation of 48 million the most economically unequal on Earth.
Gross corruption has helped enrich a small black minority of millionaires who have joined the former white minority elite that still controls the economy while most South Africans remain impoverished with millions condemned to living in tin shacks in sprawling shantytowns.
Some of the anger is directed at Zuma as he campaigns to be re-elected as leader of the African National Congress at a gathering in December. His bid has fractured his ANC party as well as its governing alliance partners, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions.
The anti-Zuma secretary general of the trade union congress, Zwelinzima Vavi, said over the weekend, "We have warned over and over again that South Africa is sitting on a ticking bomb ..." He said much more needs to be done to create jobs and end unemployment he estimated at between 25 and 36 percent.
Vavi told the story of cleaner Cynthia Gumede, who works at a public hospital "so understaffed and underfunded that she spends her entire working life trying to cope with an intolerable workload ... When desperate patients ask her for help or advice, she is so busy that she has no time to talk to them and is sometimes even rude and abusive to the very people she wanted to help." He was addressing the National Economic Development and Labor Council.
The opposition Democratic Alliance on Monday complained about frequent power cuts at Johannesburg's major Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, with an outage of several hours on Friday forcing surgeons to use the light of a cellular phone to finish operations. It said patients on ventilators had to be assisted manually in the dark because the hospital's backup generators were not working.
In the latest scandal to hit the country, human rights activists in the group Section27 reported Monday they are taking the basic education minister back to court to force her to supply textbooks in southern Limpopo province.
Some 1.7 million students have been without textbooks all year because of financial irregularities regarding the tender for their delivery. Minister Angie Motshekga has failed to comply with two court-set dates for delivery of the books.
In a recent report the government admitted that 80 percent of state schools are failing, with 1,700 without water and 15,000 with no libraries.
Zuma's supporters argue that his government has made significant progress in improving the country's treatment of patients infected with HIV/AIDS, running the world's largest program, although tens of thousands still go untreated.
At Monday's conference, Zuma described as "not all bad news" the auditor general's report that only 13 of 343 municipalities achieved clean audits. He said that was better than only seven a year ago.