South Africa’s Ramaphosa leaves Britain early to deal with protests at home

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks in parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham

South Africa’s president has cut short a visit to Britain to return home and deal with violent demonstrations in the North West capital of Mahikeng.

Protesters seeking jobs, better housing, roads and hospitals frequently clash with police in a country faced with weak economic growth and near-record unemployment – but these are the first big demonstrations since Ramaphosa took power in February.

The latest incident erupted on Wednesday with residents bringing life in the area to a standstill with protesters demanding that the province’s Premier Supra Mahumapelo, a member of Ramaphosa’s ruling African National Congress party, step down.

The unrest continued Friday, with state broadcaster SABC showing police firing rubber bullets to disperse looters in the city streets.

Demonstrators accuse Mahumapelo of corruption.

Ramaphosa was expected to visit the city on Friday in the most significant test of his public peacemaking skills since he took office in February.

A statement from Ramaphosa’s office noted clashes with police and called for calm and engagement “rather than violence and anarchy.” It also urged police to show restraint in the city of about 300,000.

South Africa’s next election is in 2019 and the ruling African National Congress party under Ramaphosa is eager to recover from its worst-ever election showing in 2016, in which the ANC lost control of major municipalities.

The party also faces internal divisions after the tumultuous resignation of former President Jacob Zuma in February after multiple scandals and allegations of graft. Ramaphosa, Zuma’s former deputy, has repeatedly pledged to tackle widespread corruption.