MAHIKENG, South Africa (Reuters) - South Africa’s new president Cyril Ramaphosa appealed for calm on Friday after flying into the northern city of Mahikeng to try to quell an outbreak of violent demonstrations.
Ramaphosa cut short a visit to a Commonwealth summit in Britain a day earlier to travel to the North West province where crowds have been protesting against poor public services and demanding the resignation of the local government leader.
“We call on all our people. Let’s be calm and this matter is going to be resolved,” Ramaphosa said after a marathon meeting with local members of his ruling African National Congress (ANC).
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.
On Friday, he promised to hold more meetings with community leaders. “We’ve decided that we would like to engage further with a number of other people,” he said.
Crowds first took to the streets in and around the province’s capital Mahikeng on Wednesday, calling for the resignation of the territory’s premier Supra Mahumapelo who is a member of the ANC.
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.
“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?”
The former 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.
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.
Writing by Alexander Winning and James Macharia; Additional writing by Mfuneko Toyan; Editing by Andrew Heavens