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Police open fire in third day of South Africa protest

February 18, 2011

By Joshua Howat Berger


WESSELTON, South Africa — Police fired rubber bullets as protestors set alight tyres in a destitute South African township on Wednesday in a third day of demonstrations to demand jobs and improved services.

Riot police deployed into the streets of Wesselton, around 200 kilometres (124 miles) east of Johannesburg, to disperse protesters who also dragged the charred remains of Tuesday’s barricades back into the road.

However calm returned on the streets of the township after South African police commissioner Bheki Cele visited the area and warned residents that law enforcements officers will not tolerate any further violent protests.

“It is their constitutional right to participate in mass action without violence, if they do that then police can go home,” he told reporters.

“But it is not their right to burn tires, it is not their right to loot, it is not their right to injure and attack people. If they do that we (police) will respond accordingly. It looks for now we have agreed on that approach. I hope that approach stays that way.”

He said 160 police officers were deployed to the township to keep watch on the demonstrators.

About 124 people have been arrested since Monday and police were investigating whether criminals took advantage of the situation, he added.

“I am looking for people that we suspect might have a hand in the crime and criminality activities that were committed (during the protest),” Cele said.

Businesses were closed and school children stayed at home amid fears that the streets could again explode into violence after Tuesday’s clashes, when police opened fire with rubber and live bullets.

A man was found dead Tuesday but authorities said it was not yet clear what had killed him.

Two children died in protests elsewhere in South Africa Tuesday, with a woman saying they drowned as they tried to escape police fire at a township demonstration in Boipelo, 300 kilometres southwest of Johannesburg.

However police denied the children’s death were linked to protest and said they would investigate the matter, media reported.

South Africa routinely sees violent protests in its impoverished shantytowns over demands for better housing and services like water and electricity, although deadly clashes are rare.

Residents felt they needed to make their voices heard ahead of local elections due late May, said Owen Manotsi, an unemployed 29-year-old who took part in the Wesselton protests.

“Whenever there are elections, these councillors, these government officials, they come to us, (and say) ‘Hey, we’re gonna do this for you, we’re gonna do that for you, everything will be fine’,” he said.

“But none of that happens after the elections. Nothing. So this is the right time for the people to voice their opinions, to voice their crisis.

“This is the only voice we have. We have to fight. The votes are making no difference,” he said, also complaining of corruption in the municipal government.

Police said they fired rubber bullets Tuesday at Wesselton protesters who trashed and looted foreign-owned shops, and shot live ammunition into walls as a warning after demonstrators opened fire at the security forces.

“They don’t care if you’re participating or just watching, they shoot everybody,” resident Sbusiso Nkosi, 21, said Wednesday as he crouched behind a tin-roof shack after running from riot police firing rubber bullets and carrying assault rifles.

Nkosi, an unemployed welder, told AFP that residents were angry over the government’s failure to deliver services and the lack of jobs in the township, which is near the town of Ermelo.

Police minister Nathi Mthethwa warned that violence would be punished.

“Police have a mandate to protect law-abiding citizens and those who find themselves on the wrong side — we shall have no leniency on them,” Mthethwa said in a statement.

He also warned truck drivers on the third day of a wage strike in Johannesburg, saying they had the right to protest but not to “violent, barbaric and intolerant behaviour”.

Four taxi passengers were seriously hurt near Johannesburg on Wednesday when a trucker fleeing an attack by strikers crashed his vehicle into theirs, and other trucks were burned, stoned and looted, media reported.

Despite being the continent’s economic powerhouse, South Africa has battled to improve living standards for the black majority since the 1994 fall of the white minority apartheid regime.

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