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Strikes and riots

South Africans burn and loot over unkept housing promises; foreigners are attacked again. Zuma vows to crack down. Workers from many sectors strike. Nelson Mandela's 91st birthday inspires do-gooders. The U.S. Ambassador will be a senior Democrat, not Oprah as rumored. Gil Marcus is appointed Reserve Bank governor, pleasing unions. And DeBeers diamond sales have one of the steepest declines in decades. Plus, the ANC pulls its free-porn offer.

Top News: Riots against poor service delivery erupted in several townships across the nation as protesters burned tires, looted stores and stoned vehicles.


Over the past 15 years, the South African government has built more than 2 million houses for the poor and increased water and electricity access dramatically, but millions of South Africans still live in shacks without power and running water. The housing department of Gauteng Province, which is home to both Johannesburg and Pretoria, admitted that its original goal of eradicating shacks by 2014 would not materialize. The department would have to build 200,000 houses a year to meet its goal but said it might be able to build only 12,000 this year because of budget constraints.


In some cases, protesters redirected their anger at foreigners, evoking images of the xenophobic violence that cost at least 67 lives last year. Police responded by using tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters. The national executive council of the ruling African National Congress resolved to make improved service delivery its priority, but President Jacob Zuma vowed to crack down on protesters who break the law.


Following strikes by doctors and construction workers, employees in several other sectors have suspended work to demand for better wages and improved conditions. Workers in the paper, printing and chemical industries have already walked off the job, and employees in the petroleum and telecommunications industries were set to join them.


One of the largest actions promises to be that of municipal workers. About 150,000 workers could take the streets Monday, bringing municipal services to a halt in many cities. The strikes come at a time when workers face stubbornly high inflation, but the government has already warned that falling tax revenues would limit its actions and might curtail its efforts to create much-needed employment opportunities.


Meanwhile, workers at stadiums and other construction sites for the 2010 soccer World Cup agreed to call off their strike after accepting a 12 percent pay raise.


Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president and one of the world’s living icons, celebrated his 91st birthday. Charities associated with Mandela used the occasion to launch Mandela Day, a call for people to spend 67 minutes of their time to help others, echoing Mandela’s 67 years of public service. Many across the world pitched in, planting trees or spending time with the elderly. The Soweto police did their part by arresting 67 suspects “to do something useful” in the words of a police inspector.


South Africa’s government could pay as much as $2.6 billion to settle land claims on parts of the Kruger National Park. As part of its efforts to redress the wrongs of the former apartheid regime, South Africa is in the process of restituting land to its rightful owners. The Kruger land reform case is one of the most complex and expensive outstanding claims, said the chief land claims commissioner.


Contrary to early rumors, Oprah Winfrey will not be the new U.S. ambassador to South Africa. Donald Gips, a domestic policy adviser to former Vice President Al Gore, has been confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the United States’ new envoy to South Africa and was urged to press the local government on human rights issues and the fight against HIV/AIDS. South Africa sees the nomination of Gips, who has served as director of presidential personnel at the White House, as a sign that the United States views its relationship with Africa’s largest economy as a priority.


Money: Zuma appointed Gill Marcus as the new Reserve Bank governor. The move pleased most constituencies, including the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which had openly called for current Governor Tito Mboweni not to be reappointed because of his perceived focus on inflation targeting at the expense of a policy favoring job creation.


Zuma said he had offered to reappoint Mboweni, who had been in place for 10 years, but that Mboweni declined the offer. Marcus is apparently well-qualified for the job, having served as deputy governor of the Reserve Bank for five years and being until recently the chair of the Absa banking group.


Retails sales fell again in May, but the rate of decline is slowing to 4.2 percent from a 6.9 percent decrease in April. Meanwhile, rating agency Moody’s upgraded South Africa’s foreign currency rating, noting that the country was “more resilient to the global crisis" than others. The higher rating should make it easier for South Africa to borrow money on international markets, the National Treasury said.


De Beers, the world’s largest diamond producer, said sales of rough diamonds fell 57 percent during the first half of the year, the largest such decline in decades. A De Beers official said however that sales should improve in the second half.


Elsewhere: The University of the Witwatersrand just launched a degree for sangomas, allowing traditional healers to become scholars and gain acceptance in South Africa’s mainstream health system.


The ANC promised much to voters during the April elections, but for a few hours it appeared the ruling party was also offering free porn. Hackers also posted ads for penis enlargement and reverse mortgage offers on the organization’s Web site. The ANC fixed the glitch and said it wished “to distance itself from a selection of embarrassing links.”