JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Protesters used children as "human shields" during an attempt to burn down a police station and municipal offices, the South African government said Wednesday, reacting to escalating violence by residents of poor townships who complain that state services are inadequate or expensive.
Separately, a protester was fatally shot and another was injured in a clash between two groups of protesters in Sebokeng, south of Johannesburg, police said.
Demonstrators blocked roads with rocks and burning tires during a protest over plans by the provincial housing authority for a development in the area, said local mayor Greta Hlongwane, according to the South African Press Association.
The upheaval follows a surge in protests in communities in other parts of the country where the state struggles to deliver services, challenging the ruling African National Congress party ahead of elections this year, the 20th anniversary of the end of white minority rule. Police responded to some violent protests with deadly gunfire, drawing criticism from human rights activists who say a culture of lawlessness has taken root among some segments of the police.
Police in Gauteng, South Africa's most populous province, have dealt with 569 protest marches in the last three months, Lt. Gen. Lesetja Mothiba, the province's acting police commissioner, told the South African news agency. He said 122 of the protests were violent and he urged the public not to be "armchair critics" of a severely strained police force.
Demonstrators set several buildings, including a clinic, on fire on Wednesday in the Bronkhorstspruit district, east of the capital, Pretoria, to protest what they say are high utility bills. There were no reported injuries. Several dozen people were arrested in another violent protest in the area a day earlier. Last week, demonstrators there set a police station and other public facilities on fire.
The government referred to "a trend of using children as human shields during protests," citing an incident in which a group of teenagers led protesters who wanted to burn down a police station and other municipal offices in Bronkhorstspruit. The use of children in such protests puts their education opportunities at risk, said Phumla Williams, a senior government spokeswoman.
"This is a violation of fundamental human rights that may hinder children's development, potentially leading to lifelong psychological damage," Williams said in a statement. "We, therefore, urge parents who involve children in destroying public property and committing violence during protest to refrain from such behavior."
Dozens of children, some in school uniform, were involved in protests in Bronkhorstspruit on Tuesday, and a public library was torched, according to The Citizen newspaper. It said one frustrated police officer shouted at the crowd: "You are burning your children's education. You are burning their books."
Municipal officials said residents in Bronkhorstspruit were unable to buy pre-paid electricity because the system recently crashed. Residents have also complained about high utility bills.
The African National Congress, the electoral front-runner that has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid, points to achievements such as increased access to electricity, the building of several million homes and a drastic increase in the number of people receiving social grants in the past two decades. Yet social ills such as corruption, high crime, unemployment and economic inequality remain entrenched, and opposition parties have chipped away at the ruling party's popularity by highlighting the lack of improvement in living standards for many South Africans.
In Cape Town, members of the African National Congress held a peaceful rally Wednesday to protest what they say is a lack of toilets, running water and other services in some parts of the Western Cape, the only province that is controlled by the political opposition. Helen Zille, the province's premier, said in a statement that her administration had made progress in securing land from the national government that will speed up local service delivery to the poor.
On Sunday, President Jacob Zuma said people have the right to protest peacefully, but should respect the police and not carry weapons, burn public facilities or endanger lives to make a point. He also cautioned law enforcement agencies.
"The police now have tools at their disposal such as water cannons, rubber bullets, shields and others that are non-lethal. There is a lot that they can do without killing people," Zuma said. He said South Africa had inherited a "culture of violence" from its past under white minority rule, when the security forces imposed racial discrimination with the help of harsh apartheid laws.
Last month, four police were arrested for the shooting death of a man during a violent rally over a lack of housing in Roodepoort, west of Johannesburg. Also in January, four people died in clashes with police during a protest over water access in Mothutlung in North West province.