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Sunday Times STLive By SIBUSISO NGALWA, 2012-03-25

Phosa warns of Arab Spring in SA

Mathews Phosa.File photo
Image: Tyrone Arthur Sunday Times

ANC treasurer-general Mathews Phosa has warned of a North African-style Arab Spring if the government does not effectively tackle rising unemployment among the youth.

In a week in which South Africa was hit by a wave of service-delivery protests, driven mainly by young people, Phosa said if disgruntled youths could turn on their governments - as happened in Tunisia and Egypt - South Africa needed to pay attention.

"What happened in North Africa was there were too many unemployed young people. If we don't draw lessons from there, we are making ... a big mistake ... If one of them is that the youth felt unemployed and neglected and rose against their own government, then it's a lesson for us to be careful of," he said.

Phosa was speaking to the Sunday Times this week about the state of the ANC and its challenges moving into its second centenary.

As he warned of a possible Arab Spring, poor communities in Ratanda township in Heidelberg, Gauteng, Western Cape's Grabouw and Ogies in Mpumalanga took to the streets to complain about unemployment and poor service delivery.

By yesterday, the protests had spread to Tlhatlhaganyane in North West, where a community hall and offices were burnt down.

Although Phosa was not reacting to these specific incidents, he warned that the ruling party would have to moderate its election promises to avoid protests. "The challenge is to turn around local government by introducing a more effective and efficient focus on service delivery.

"We pitch our promises too high, and then there are expectations. If we don't perform [as promised], then we should intervene by communicating effectively. Keeping silent is the source of delivery protests [by communities] to draw attention to their situation."

Joblessness could destabilise South Africa, he said. "U nemployment is too high ... We will be destabilised in the long run if there are too many unemployed. We can't put our heads in the sand and say, 'What happened in North Africa won't happen here.'"

The ANC has scoffed at suggestions that an uprising similar to the Arab Spring could happen in South Africa as a result of growing inequality.

President Jacob Zuma even went as far as to declare that "there will never be a Tunisia in South Africa" - referring to the toppling of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali last year.

But Phosa believes that unless "economic freedom" and "service delivery" become the main focus of the ANC as it begins its second centenary, the country is headed for upheavals.

"You move from political freedom to economic freedom. Economic freedom should be the centre of this centenary so that we don't say we are free when there is no bread on the table, when joblessness increases, when rural areas are not developed," he said.

Job creation should be of concern not only to the government, but to trade unions and companies, he said.

He said land reform should be dealt with speedily . "We should not wait for people to cheer for [Robert] Mugabe; we should address the issue of land and hunger in this country. Everybody must come to the party ... We need to sit down with the stakeholders and say, 'How do we accelerate [this] , because it's been too slow.'

"We need to accelerate it so that we have our own cheers and not wait for Mugabe to be cheered," he said, in response to a question about Mugabe's popularity among the poor.

Land reform, which also features in the ANC's policy discussion documents, needed support, he said.

But he warned: "The return of land mechanically [with] no support programme, then ... the jobs collapse and food production collapses. Food security is threatened and food prices rise, and then you will have serious upheavals."