Big Protests in South Africa Force Ramaphosa to End London Visit
LONDON — South Africa’s new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, who had traveled to London this week to assure global investors of his determination to tackle corruption in his country and restore faith in its public institutions, cut short his trip on Thursday to deal with unrest at home — a vivid indication of the challenges he faces.
The protests in the North West Province, in which demonstrators seeking better jobs and housing, and improved roads and hospitals, clashed with the police, were the biggest in the two months since Mr. Ramaphosa took office.
His predecessor, Jacob Zuma, was tarnished by scandal and deeply unpopular during much of his nearly nine-year tenure, and he was eventually forced out in a struggle within the leadership of the African National Congress, the party that has governed South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994.
In a statement announcing his return from London to Pretoria, one of South Africa’s capitals, Mr. Ramaphosa’s office said he had “called for calm and adherence to the rule of law” in the province, and urged demonstrators “to express their grievances through peaceful means and engagement rather than violence and anarchy.”
The president also urged law enforcement agencies “to exercise maximum restraint in execution of their duties to return calm and normality to the province,” the statement said.
Mr. Ramaphosa had been in London to attend a meeting of leaders of the Commonwealth nations, which South Africa rejoined in 1994 when a democratic government was elected after the fall of white-minority rule.
The trip, which included meetings with Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, was something of a road show for the new president to present himself to the financial markets. Mr. Ramaphosa announced plans to raise $100 billion in foreign investment over the next five years.
In a speech at the summit meeting, Mr. Ramaphosa said his country had entered “a new era of confidence and hope,” and he named four envoys, including two well-respected former Finance Ministry officials, to campaign for investments.
“The pitch is going to be, ‘We’re open for business, we’re embarking on reforms,’” he told Bloomberg TV in an interview this week.
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While in London, Mr. Ramaphosa addressed investors’ anxiety about possible land reform in South Africa while acknowledging some constituents’ demand for radical change. He tried to allay fears of a violent land grab as had happened in Zimbabwe.
When apartheid fell in the 1990s, the new A.N.C. government alleviated fears of white South Africans by largely upholding existing economic arrangements. But the country’s high level of inequality — and resentment at members of a black elite who have benefited from graft — has prompted major demonstrations against economic injustice in recent years.
When the A.N.C. took power, it wanted to address the issue of land ownership in South Africa, but “it has not quite worked as we had intended it to work,” Mr. Ramaphosa said in the television interview.
Another gargantuan task Mr. Ramaphosa faces is to deliver on his promise of a “new dawn” following public outrage over corruption and of an Indian business family’s influence on the previous administration. Endemic corruption has engulfed South Africa and eroded virtually every institution in the country, including state enterprises.
While the police and prosecutors are investigating multiple cases of corruption and plan to recover more than $4 billion lost from state coffers, they have done little to prosecute political leaders who enabled malfeasance across many sectors of the economy.
The president’s recent appointments to his cabinet have also cast doubt on his promises of reform. After he became party leader by a razor-thin margin, Mr. Ramaphosa appointed several officials who had been accused of corruption in the past.
Earlier this week, South Africa’s public ombudsman announced an investigation into two high-ranking members of the A.N.C. after $21 million of public funds, meant to help struggling black farmers, went to politically connected companies and individuals.