Protesters burn Balfour library

2010-02-09 21:04

Johannesburg - The library in Balfour's Siyathemba township went up in flames on Tuesday afternoon during a protest that appears to have shifted from labour recruitment demands to an insistence the local mayor resign.

"They are burning the library down," said police spokesperson Sam Tshabalala, on the third day of violence in the Mpumalanga township.

Earlier, police fired rubber bullets when between 800 and 1 000 people became "irritated" during a meeting outside the Siyathemba community hall.

Zakhele Maya, who says he is a community leader, told Sapa he had been called to address a large crowd outside the hall, and was then told to go to the mayor's office and ask him to resign.

However, the mayor, Mabelane Tsotetsi, did not give an immediate answer.

Maya said when he returned to the hall he was told people became "irritated" and started burning tyres and police fired rubber bullets.

Tshabalala confirmed that rubber bullets were fired as people ran away and regrouped. Nobody was injured, he said.

Power poles burnt

Earlier in the day, people had made pyres of poles Eskom had planned to use in the area. On the previous two days foreigners' shops were looted and a municipal office burnt down.

Mpumalanga's education MEC Reginah Mhaule pleaded with local residents to allow schooling to continue unhindered. Pupils were preparing to rewrite some of their matric exams. The province got one of the lowest matric pass rates.

"On Thursday 11 February 2010, the supplementary examinations for grade 12 learners will commence and my view is that every community should be obliged to ensure that school activities progress without any hassle," Mhaule said in a statement.

"I am making a humble call to the community of Balfour to allow teachers, learners and non-teaching staff to be in schools so that teaching and learning can progress unhindered."

Maya blamed "criminal elements" for the violence, saying they had actually helped the foreigners remove their merchandise to safety before criminals moved in.

He complained the criminals were detracting from the real issues - that the local Burnstone Mine hire half its workforce in the local community.

But, Maya said the community had now changed strategy and decided they would for now focus on having the mayor removed.

No confidence

"People have lost confidence in him," said Maya.

"These are issues that resonate from the previous service delivery protests (of last year). The mayor seems to not assist our people in dealing with the issues."

MEC for co-operative governance and traditional affairs Norman Mokoena, along with community safety MEC Sibongile Manana and economic development MEC Jabu Mahlangu were expected to visit the area later on Wednesday.

A spokesperson for the provincial government could not immediately be reached to provide further information.

In a statement it said the visit was aimed at assessing the situation.

Mokoena "condemned in the strongest possible terms the unwarranted violence and malicious destruction of property, by certain residents of Balfour".

The unrest has caused concern because the provincial government felt "great progress" was being made on issues raised by locals during protests in 2009.

"We have set up a task team that includes some leaders of the community, officials from the municipality and the provincial government. The task team has made significant progress on dealing with a number of the issues raised and therefore these acts of violence are unwarranted," he said.

The National Union of Metalworkers of SA said a service delivery summit was needed to resolve the issues that communities such as Balfour were trying to raise.

However, they condemned the targeting of foreigners.

Twenty two people were expected to appear in the Balfour Magistrate's Court on Wednesday to face charges of public violence related to the protests. Police expect to make more arrests.

The protests come two days before the state of the nation address by President Jacob Zuma, who visited the area last year during similar protests.