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South African riots over poor services, poverty hit record in 2018

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Riots in South Africa linked to public anger over poor government services and poverty have hit a record high in 2018, data showed on Wednesday, a sign one analyst said the ruling African National Congress should not ignore ahead of elections next year.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has pledged to improve governance and kickstart an economy mired in recession, but high levels of public discontent reflect the challenge the ANC faces as it tries to reform Africa’s most industrialised economy.

Dubbed “service delivery protests,” the number of such incidents had hit 198 by the end of September, the data from research organisation Municipal IQ showed, surpassing the previous record for a full calendar year of 191 in 2014, when former president Jacob Zuma was in power.

The riots typically see protesters blocking roads with burning debris, hurling rocks or bricks and clashing with the police. Services they are demanding include housing, running water, paved roads and other amenities that many poor black people remain without more than two decades after the end of apartheid.

The riots were spread between areas governed both by the ANC and by the opposition, however, suggesting it was hard to draw a direct link between them and the popularity of the ruling party.

The highest number of incidents - almost 20 percent - were recorded in the Eastern Cape province, a traditional stronghold for the ANC, which has been in power since the end of apartheid in 1994.

That was followed by 17 percent in Gauteng province, which includes the financial hub of Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria - both run by the opposition Democratic Alliance party.

“Whether or not these protests signal a shift in support for the ANC is another matter,” said Gary van Staden, a political analyst with NKC African Economics.

“Still, the ANC would be extremely foolish to ignore or dismiss this data, as it is a real indicator of discontent,” he said.

Kwa-Zulu Natal province, another key ANC base and the heartland of South Africa’s largest ethnic group the Zulus, has accounted for 15 percent of the protests so far in 2018.

The ANC and officials from the Cooperative Governance ministry, which is responsible for local government, were not immediately available for comment.

Editing by James Macharia and Hugh Lawson