Published Friday, Feb. 7, 2014 | 7:40 a.m.
Updated Friday, Feb. 7, 2014 | 7:40 a.m.
JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africa will hold general elections on May 7 in a democratic milestone marking 20 years since the end of white minority rule, the president said Friday, even as police struggled to contain violent protests by poor residents who say the government has reneged on pledges to improve living standards.
The election will be the first since the Dec. 5 death of Nelson Mandela, a unifying figure whose election as South Africa's first black president in 1994 lifted the hopes of many South Africans whose basic rights were denied during apartheid. The ruling African National Congress, the liberation movement-turned-political party that Mandela led, is favored to win the elections, but its popularity has slipped amid high unemployment, corruption scandals and inadequate government services and infrastructure.
"Now it's elections, they come door to door and campaign with us. We are sick and tired of a promised land," said Obed Marema, a 31-year-old resident of Hebron, a community area near the capital, Pretoria, where protesters demanding better water supply and other services blocked roads with rocks and burning tires on Friday.
"We've been on the waiting list, on the promised land forever. When are we going to enter the Canaan that they were talking about, that our forefathers fought for," Marema said, referring to the promised land in the Bible.
South Africa's most populous province, Gauteng, has experienced about 50 protests over lack of government services this year alone, causing millions of dollars in damage, said Ntombi Mekgwe, a provincial official. She said some people were engineering protests for political gain ahead of the elections. In some places, rioters denounced the African National Congress.
The violence is occurring in poor townships in an echo of street unrest when anti-apartheid activists sought to make townships ungovernable during racist white rule decades ago. The poor communities that have erupted in protest are demanding adequate utilities and housing, or lower prices for electricity and other services. Rioters have burned vehicles and buildings and looted shops. Police responded to some violent protests with deadly gunfire, drawing criticism from human rights activists who say a culture of lawlessness has taken root among the police.
President Jacob Zuma, who is expected to run for a second term, said the election offers a chance for South Africans to build on the democracy that Mandela and others worked so hard to achieve. He urged people to register to vote in their thousands this weekend, the last opportunity to do so ahead of the election.
"Our country is a much better place to live in now than before 1994, because of the participation and contribution of South Africans," Zuma said in a statement.
To support that claim, the ruling party has said over 3.3 million houses have been built in the past two decades, benefiting more than 16 million people; the number of people receiving social grants has increased from 3 million to 16 million during that period; and about 92 percent of South Africans have access to potable water, compared to 60 percent in 1996. Key problems, however, include poor education and a lack of skilled workers, an official unemployment rate of about 25 percent, and a level of economic inequality that is among the highest in the world.
And many people still live in shacks with no running water, sewage or electricity. South Africa has gleaming malls, highways and homes with manicured lawns behind high walls but also squatter camps built of pieces of wood, cardboard and corrugated tin with sewage running in the unpaved streets.
Last month, a 6-year-old boy drowned after falling into an open pit latrine in a school in Limpopo province. The toilet seat collapsed under the boy while he was sitting on it. The death was front-page news in The Sowetan newspaper and came as many of the poor are demanding that their lot improve after all these years.
Besides anger of lack of proper services, there is criticism of Zuma's character.
The depth of dissatisfaction was evident when people attending a stadium memorial in Johannesburg for Mandela booed the president in front of about 100 world leaders and a global television audience. The discontent stems in part from reports that the government paid $21 million to upgrade Zuma's rural homestead. Revelations that the sign language interpreter at the memorial was bogus and had even been accused of murder raised more questions about the competence of state institutions.
Some 24.1 million South Africans, or 76.7 percent of eligible voters, have registered to vote, according to the electoral commission. Its data indicates that a generation of new voters who were born after the end of apartheid — the so-called "born frees" — have shown relatively little interest in politics. Only about 22 percent of eligible voters aged 18 to 19 years old, or 428,000 people, have registered.
AP journalist Thomas Phakane contributed to this report from Hebron, South Africa.