Photo: blogger Sydelle Willow Smith.

Protests over living conditions in South African shanty towns turned violent on Wednesday when discontented slum dwellers around the country clashed with police forces. Similar outbursts last year resulted in over 70 deaths when rioters also targeted foreigners from neighbouring countries; a cause for concern for the hundreds of thousands of World Cup fans planning to travel to the country in a year's time.  

Police responded to stones and bottles with rubber bullets and tear gas. The protestors, who marched in their thousands in townships in Johannesburg, Western Cape and the northeastern region of Mpumalanga, demand better basic services such as increased water supplies and toilet facilities. Jobless protestors demand higher unemployment benefits.

The crisis comes just two months after African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma was elected president after promising improved conditions for the country's poor. Instead, conditions have worsened after South Africa hit its biggest recession in 17 years. More than a million people remain living in shacks and over 23% of the country is unemployed. Which is perhaps why they find it hard to believe that the government is spending nearly $145 million (€102m) on next year's World Cup, taking place across the country between June 11 and July 11. With around 500,000 foreigners planning to make their way to the event, the government is under pressure to quell the violence before the games kick off.

The Kennedy Road Shanty town

Photos of the Kennedy Road shanty town, where S'bu lives. Taken in August 2008 by Matt Birkinshaw.

“It would be good for the government to want to impress outsiders by improving the lives of the country’s poor”

S'bu Zikode, 34, is a former petrol pump attendant from the Kennedy Road shanty town on the outskirts of Durban, home to 7,000. Made unemployed in 2006, he now presides over the South African non-violent shack dwellers' movement, Abahlali, which is part of a nationwide group, The Poor People's Alliance.

Where we live there's no refuse collection, no road access. People are exposed to, and dying from, shack fires. Unemployment is rife. There are communities where there are only one or two water taps for over 10,000 people. And the average number is five. The toilets are pits, not flushable, and there are only around five per 5,000 people. That means you have to use the bushes. Even the shacks we live in, we're being chased out of because the government would rather sell the land for commercial purposes; mainly shopping centres.

Most of the people who have jobs work as cleaners in rich houses or as street traders, selling clothes, for example. But the majority end up unemployed so have to set up their own businesses, like stalls in the shanty town. 

All we want is the government to talk to us, to listen. It seems as though our government doesn't think we have the right to protest. It's the authorities who are encouraging violent behaviour by promising things, not doing them, then repressing entire communities and not allowing them to protest! People feel that they have no other option. Plan A is to engage with the government, but as the government refuses, they resort to plan B - taking to the streets. No human being consents to violence without being pushed to a stage when they've got no alternative. Who we need to investigate is those in power. Victims of violence are victims because of decisions made by the authorities.

We're not necessarily using the World Cup to garner more leverage. All I can say is that it would be good for the government to want to impress outsiders by improving the lives of the country's poor. I can't understand why anybody would want to come to South Africa in the state we're in anyway. The government needs to look after its own people before looking after outsiders."