Thousands have protested over the lack of basic services in townships [EPA]

South Africa has been rocked by violent protests in recent weeks, with last week being perhaps the most violent since the inauguration of Jacob Zuma, South Africa's president, in May.

Police fired rubber bullets and teargas at protestors in the poor township areas who hurled stones at them.

Violent riots and threats of a fresh wave of crippling labour strikes may force Zuma to deliver quickly on election promises which include job creation and houses for millions of the poor.

But these socialist interventions by the government could scare away investors in Africa's biggest economy who want the current economic policy in South Africa to stay the way it is.

On the other end of the scale, the trade unions who helped put Zuma in power want left leaning economic policies.

Worrying reminder

While politicians try to find a middle ground, the battle over policies is being played out in the overcrowded townships where there is often no running water, electricity or adequate accommodation.

The people want their lives to improve and want the government to look after their needs before those of big business.

The recent township violence is reminiscent of the unrest witnessed during the apartheid years and the threats against foreigners are a worrying reminder of last year's xenophobic attacks.

In 2008, protests erupted across South Africa. They began as demonstrations over the government's failure to improve the plight of the poorest of the poor, but soon foreigners were being attacked in their shack settlements.

An estimated 70 people were murdered by the time the violence ended several weeks later.

Reassuring investors

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) is desperate to avoid a repeat of last year's violence when television screens all over the world beamed horrific images of South Africans in poor townships burning the shacks of Zimbabweans, Malawians, Somalis and other foreigners, exposing the deep anti-foreigner sentiment in South Africa.

This time the government seems to have reacted quickly.

Zuma's party released a statement on Thursday promising "to listen and find solutions to people's concerns" and condemning lootings and attacks on foreigners "under the guise of service delivery protests" against the government.

In a desperate attempt to assure investors that the country is not descending into chaos, Zuma told businessmen that although the government acknowledged problems with delivering basic services, looting, violence and the destruction of property could not be justified.

Some 200 people were arrested in the demonstrations.

Champion of the poor?

Ebrahim Fakir, a political analyst at the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa in Johannesburg, says the recent violence should not be seen as an indication that support for Zuma is waning.

Zuma's pledge to help the poor was the main plank of the ANC's election manifesto[EPA]
"The recent unrest affects the government, not President Zuma," he explains.

"It forces the government to be more responsive in terms of how it relates with people frustrated with low wages and a lack of service delivery.

"With regard to the violence yes it's about service delivery but understand there are criminal elements to it too. At least what Zuma's government did is to react early to try and control things - unlike in the Mbeki days when the then administration ignored things for a while."

Analysts say it is too early to judge Zuma and that most of the anger has been directed at local officials rather than the president.

But the long-term credibility of the man who portrays himself as the champion of the poor may depend on whether he acts against corrupt local government officials and stamps out corruption within the ANC.

ANC support

In last week's riots an incident in the townships of Siyathemba said it all.

Lefty Tsotetsi, the local mayor, arrived in an armoured police vehicle to try to appease thousands of angry residents calling for better living conditions and jobs. The crowd hurled rocks and bottles at him.

Residents, mainly young unemployed men, shouted for jobs and accused the ANC mayor of giving jobs to family members and skimming from the government coffers.

Even though anger is apparent, analysts suggest the unrest has not yet damaged Zuma's standing with the poor and trade unions - those who helped to elevate him to power.

Those who protested over poor services are the biggest supporters of the ANC, mainly because it led the fight against apartheid, and the black majority find it hard to identify with the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, which they see as largely white and elitist.

Abject poverty

As long as there are stark differences between South Africa's haves and have nots, protests and violent clashes are likely to continue.

Twenty million people - an estimated third of the population - live in abject poverty.

The country is struggling to stay afloat as its worst recession in 17 years sees companies close and tens of thousands of South Africans from all walks of life lose their jobs.

Zuma is facing trouble on several fronts.

Last week, the fuel sector union agreed to an improved 9.5 per cent wage offer but warned that it may yet strike in sympathy with paper and chemical workers who are currently striking.

Council workers are threatening to strike from Monday, which could keep tens of thousands of local government employees at home and cripple the public sector.

Gold and coal unions are currently considering a pay offer, but if they reject it stoppages will hit some of the world's biggest mines.

High hopes dashed?

Zuma came from humble beginnings and was a union man. He played a significant role in the fight against apartheid and is largely respected by South Africa's poor working class.

Charismatic and persuasive, he raised high hopes during his election campaign, vowing to help millions of blacks still living in shacks 15 years after the ANC came to power.

Perhaps he made too many promises without having a concrete plan of action in place and now he is faced with the challenge of delivering. But with the country in a recession it is hard to see where the money is going to come from.

In the 15 years since the ANC liberated the country from the shackles of the oppressive apartheid system, it has built close to three million homes, improved education standards for the black majority and created a sizeable emerging black middle class.

But some feel that those achievements are just the tip of the iceberg and that millions of poor South Africans have not yet witnessed any changes in their personal circumstances.

Chance to 'prove himself'

Kitty DeKock earns $40-a-week picking fruit in South Africa's Cape region. She is a single mother of four and says she cannot make ends meet.

Under apartheid she did not have the opportunity to get an education. Her family worked for white landowners who often mistreated them.

In the 15 years since the ANC came to power, she says life has not changed much and that she is still suffering.

Were it not for the farm compound where she lives with other farm workers she would be living in a shack in one of the townships. But her compound has no running water or electricity.

She feels that as a South African who lived through the indignity and horrors of the apartheid system, the new black government is not doing enough to improve her life.

"I don't think it's fair – not fair for any of us," she says.

"We are struggling. We as farm workers are the people who are struggling the most. But we are doing the hardest work."

Despite her hardships she still supports Zuma and is willing to give him a chance to "prove himself".

This seems to be the sentiment of many of his supporters, after all Zuma is "one of them" - a man from humble beginnings and a unionist who is supposed to understand the plight of the workers.

But analysts warn that if Zuma's administration takes too long to deliver on his promise to tackle poverty and improve the plight of the country's black majority, he could soon lose the support of the people he needs the most.

Source: Al Jazeera