Page last updated at 13:55 GMT, Friday, 12 February 2010

Anger, not hope in South African township

Burning blockade

By Pumza Fihlani
BBC News, Siyathemba township

Burning tyres litter the streets; every road is blockaded with piles of large rocks, thick black smoke fills the air, the sound of rubber bullets is followed by loud screams - this South African township is alive and its anger is spilling over.

Hundreds of people march up and down the streets of Siyathemba township in the northern Mpumalanga province in the week that the country marks 20 years since Nelson Mandela was freed from prison.

Mandela has been out of jail for 20 years, 20 years and nothing has changed here

Siyathemba, near Balfour, is one of more than 10 townships which took part in a spate of protests last year over a lack of basic services such as clean water, electricity and proper housing.

The African National Congress (ANC) promised to deliver such bare necessities when it came into power in 1994, ending decades of white minority rule.

Many poor South Africans are starting to lose patience with their government.

Simmering tensions

"A better life for all," was the party's slogan at the time and yet today some feel this dream has remained just that.

The township's name means "We (have) hope" in the local Swati language and yet residents here say they have nothing to be hopeful for.

Flata Motambo
Flata Motambo says the ANC only bothers about the poor at election time

"I live a life each day worrying about where the next meal will come from because I don't have a job. Most people are poor here," says Flata Motambo, 28, as she rejoins the group of young protesters.

Some are carrying petrol bombs and large stones and vow to harm anyone who dares to stop them.

"We are sick and tired of waiting," yells one woman from a crowd that has gathered around me, as I try to speak to them.

"Mandela has been out of jail for 20 years, 20 years and nothing has changed here. Just look at the state of our roads, there is just no development here and the police shoot us when we protest, we have every reason to," shouts another protester.

President Jacob Zuma visited Siyathemba in August 2009 to hear the residents' complaints after the last "service delivery" protests.

Local officials admit that nothing tangible has been done since then but stress that a "turn-around plan" will be used in the coming months to improve conditions.

Easy targets

The protests include another dynamic, anger over the employment of "foreigners" at a nearby gold mine, they say.

"The foreigners are buying our jobs. They bribe officials to get jobs, we don't have money to do that. Now they have more skills than us, skills we should be getting," says Vusi Mashiniba.

I don't feel safe because I don't know the next time they will attack
Frans Malkamo
Somali shop-owner

He believes the growing tensions may spark another spate of xenophobic violence.

Foreign nationals become easy targets in these situations, perhaps the victims of misplaced rage and circumstance.

Some employers hire them because they can pay them less than the acceptable standard wage and because many of them are illegal immigrants, they accept whatever offer is made, desperate to earn a living.

This fuels the belief amongst some that foreigners are "stealing jobs" that should be offered to locals.

During their four-day rampage, residents torched a library and looted a number of stores owned by foreign nationals; they say this is the only way of getting the government's attention.


The shop-owners, mostly from Somalia and Pakistan, have fled the area and sought refuge at a house a few metres from the local police station.

"I don't have anything now - no money no food - they took everything. I don't feel safe because I don't know the next time they will attack," says Frans Malkamo, a Somali shop-owner.

Residents say violence is the only solution to their problems.

"They only notice us when we get violent, we are prepared to do whatever it takes," says one resident.

Long walk to prosperity?

Every road in this small township is ravaged by potholes, like many other townships in the country.

Piles of rubbish are left to collect on the street corners.

People getting water in Alexandra township (file photo)
Township residents continue to live in squalor across South Africa

But the destruction by the community members raises fears amongst a few that these actions will only worsen living conditions.

"I don't understand why they have to destroy buildings here, this place is already suffering," says Mandisa, 18, one of the few not part of the march.

"I don't think marching will change anything. I also don't want to get injured," she says standing, outside the gate of the one-bedroom home where she lives with her aunt and two siblings.

Her home is old and small, water and power supply are inconsistent.

Great strides have been made in the past 15 years, but more than one million households still live in shacks, often sharing a single toilet among dozens of families.

The government says this too will change in time and has urged people to be patient.

But for many South Africans, time is running out.

Nelson Mandela may have won his struggle for black South Africans to be allowed to vote but in places like Siyathemba, residents say the fight against apartheid was also to improve their deplorable living conditions.

They say this battle is far from over.

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