MAHIKENG, South Africa (Reuters) - South Africa’s new president Cyril Ramaphosa flew into the northern city of Mahikeng on Friday to try and quell an outbreak of violent protests that had forced him to cut short a visit to a Commonwealth summit.
The 65-year-old headed straight into meetings with officials to discuss the demonstrations against poor public services and the local government which is led by a member of his ruling African National Congress.
Ramaphosa, who replaced Jacob Zuma as president in February, has staked his reputation on rooting out the corruption and mismanagement associated with Zuma’s nine scandal-plagued years in power.
Crowds took to the streets in and around the capital of North West province on Wednesday, calling for the resignation of the territory’s premier Supra Mahumapeloa.
As violence mounted, neighbouring Botswana shut some border crossings. Police fired tear gas at protesters who blocked roads. South African media reported that cars were set alight and shops looted over two days of unrest.
“We want the president to tell Supra he must go. That man is full of corruption,” 25-year-old Oratile Seadira, a construction worker who lives in a shack on the outskirts of Mahikeng, said on Friday.
“We have nothing. No houses. No good schools. No hospital. People are saying they will burn the city if he doesn’t go.” The streets around him were quiet as Ramaphosa arrived.
Unions and business leaders in the Northwest have been calling for Mahumapelo to resign in recent weeks over allegations of corruption in the award of state tenders.
Mahumapelo has denied any wrongdoing.
“The president, together with the deputy president, will be having a meeting in the area to see what decisions need to be taken to make the situation better,” said Police Minister Bheki Cele.
Ramaphosa decided to cut short his visit to the summit in London on Thursday. Calling for calm, he ordered police to exercise maximum restraint and urged those with grievances not to resort to violence. [nL8N1RW6W4]
The president, a trade union leader turned businessman, has a reputation as a painstaking negotiator after playing a key role in talks to end white minority rule more than 20 years ago. [nL8N1PX7ES]
Protesters seeking jobs, better housing, roads and hospitals frequently clash with police in South Africa, where weak economic growth has left more than one in four workers unemployed.
“We have been neglected. We want Cyril Ramaphosa to come and see how we live, to scramble in the mud like us,” said Miriam Visage, 52, who lives in a two room township house with her six children and seven grandchildren.
“The ANC is full of empty promises,” said Visage, accusing the police of firing live rounds during the protests. “We were very peaceful. Do they think we are wild animals to be shot?”
Writing by Alexander Winning and James Macharia; Editing by Andrew Heavens