- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 26, 2006

KHUTSONG, South Africa — The stench of burning tires and tear gas hung over the rubble-strewn streets of Khutsong last week. But it was fear within South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, that residents of this drab, sprawling township 56 miles southwest of Johannesburg could smell.

In an astonishing reversal, the party which came to power in 1994 on the back of mass protests against the former apartheid regime has become the target of violent street protests by residents who say it will not listen to them.

Once an ANC stronghold, Khutsong is now a no-go area for the party. Defense Minister Mosiuoa Lekota, the party chairman, had to flee the area eight days ago when angry, stone-throwing residents burned tires, hurled abuse and sang a song in which they threatened to cut off his genitals.

Mr. Lekota’s visit to address a meeting of residents in the township’s stadium had been billed as an attempt to ease tensions with those who oppose an order to relocate them to a neighboring province. But it ended in farce when only 200 ANC supporters turned up to hear him speak. After the meeting, the minister was whisked to safety while police used rubber bullets and tear gas to hold 3,000 protesters at bay.

A return visit on Friday had to be abandoned when Mr. Lekota was trapped in the stadium for 20 minutes by protesters.

Mr. Lekota’s humiliation is the latest in a series of setbacks for the party here. In December, 14 ANC councilors were forced to flee after their homes were set afire. Local government elections are just a few days away, but in Khutsong the party has yet to put up a poster.

“People here hate the ANC now because they think it doesn’t work for them,” said 58-year-old Mavis Khumlo as she watched the cleanup operation.

Indeed, Khutsong has become a focal point for criticism of the technocratic approach of the government led by Thabo Mbeki, elected president in succession to Nelson Mandela.

The trigger for residents’ anger is a decision to redraw provincial boundaries so that Khutsong is transferred from Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria, to the poorer North West province.

Similar changes elsewhere have also provoked violent demonstrations against the ANC. The anger aroused by the issue is almost incomprehensible from the outside, but at its root is the same frustration with the absence of basic services such as running water and sewers that has sparked 900 demonstrations across South Africa over the past two years. North West province has one of the worst records of South Africa’s seven provinces and is also one of the most corrupt.

More than 10 percent of black households in the province have no access to toilet facilities — a figure twice as high as in the wealthier Gauteng province — and 14 percent have no piped water. Residents fear that transferring to North West will also mean fewer jobs in a town where unemployment is 40 percent.

Residents were further incensed that Mr. Lekota turned what had been billed as a community meeting into an ANC election rally.

“He was here as a minister, not as chairman of the ANC. You can’t hold an ANC rally when you say you’re sent by the government,” said Jerry Daniel, 46, as he showed the wounds to his head and to an arm caused by rubber bullets.

The anger in Khutsong is a sign that the ANC’s grip on power is beginning to loosen. One of its two alliance partners, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) has been distinctly lukewarm in its support for the ANC election campaign. Officials of the other, the South African Communist Party (SACP), appear to have organized the protests in Khutsong.

Jomo Mogale, one of the organizers of the protest and a local SACP official, said change was in the offing. “At the moment, the ANC have support from COSATU and SACP, but if the alliance breaks, you will see miracles — and it will break soon.”

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