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 CNS Story:

SAFRICA-VIOLENCE Apr-1-2011 (500 words) xxxi

South African church leaders: Protests are warning to political leaders

By Bronwen Dachs
Catholic News Service

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (CNS) -- Violent protests by South Africans demanding better living conditions are a warning to the authorities not to ignore the needs of the people, church leaders said.

After police fired rubber bullets March 30 at protesters in Zandspruit, a shanty settlement on the outskirts of Johannesburg, the South African Council of Churches said "the violent developments associated with poor delivery of social services" are a "rude reawakening call to the authorities" as well as "an indication of just how destructive things can turn out to be if local government councilors and political parties continue to ignore the needs of the people."

As with many squatter camps around Johannesburg, Zandspruit residents live in squalid conditions, sharing toilets and communal taps, with little or no electricity. Neighboring suburbs have some of Africa's most expensive real estate.

"Our early warning to South Africa's leadership is that all efforts" must be made "to save this democracy lest we walk the path of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya ... where social instability reigns," the council said in a March 31 statement from its Johannesburg headquarters.

The Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference is a member of the council.

With local elections scheduled for mid-May, the church leaders said they were concerned that many of the protests that occurred in March in five of South Africa's nine provinces were challenges to the ruling party's candidate selection.

Political parties should "respect the desires of communities and allow internal democracy to lead their choice of candidates," the council said.

Many South Africans are advocating "a no-vote campaign, which shows that there is no sense of a possibility of an alternative ruling party" to the African National Congress, Dominican Father Mike Deeb, director of the bishops' justice and peace department, said in a March 31 telephone interview from Pretoria.

"This is a challenge to other political parties, because it shows there are none that they are seriously attracted to," Father Deeb said, noting that most of the communities where the protests have taken place are "unhappy with the type of people put forward as candidates by the ANC."

In an early March pastoral letter, the bishops' conference said that "many public representatives in South Africa choose to enter the world of politics because they want power, wealth and status, and not because they are committed to serving the public."

This "harms our democracy and results in us, as citizens, not enjoying its benefits. It leads to corruption, nepotism and self-advancement, at the cost of service-delivery and the well-being of our communities," the bishops said.

Noting that "such people do not deserve our support," they said that "if we continue to vote for them, we will have only ourselves to blame if our municipal services crumble and our neighborhoods are not properly maintained."

The South African government has spent billions of dollars on infrastructure and social programs since the end of white minority rule in 1994, although millions of blacks still live in poverty and official unemployment runs at 25 percent.


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