South Africa’s new president Cyril Ramaphosa visited North West province on Friday to try to quell protests over poor local services that have turned violent, after cutting short a trip to the Commonwealth summit being held in London.
Police Minister Bheki Cele said Ramaphosa would meet local officials from his ruling African National Congress (ANC) party at around 1000 GMT in a bid to defuse tensions.
“I am here to listen more than talk,” Cele told local television. “The president, together with the deputy president, will be having a meeting in the area to see what decisions need to be taken to make the situation better.”
Ramaphosa, who replaced Jacob Zuma as head of state in February, has staked his reputation on rooting out the corruption and mismanagement associated with Zuma’s nine scandal-plagued years in power.
Unrest erupted on Wednesday in and around the city of Mahikeng in the province, located around 300 km (200 miles) west of South Africa’s commercial hub Johannesburg.
South African media reported that cars were set alight, shops looted and roads blockaded by protesters calling for North West Premier Supra Mahumapeloa, a member of the ANC, to quit.
Police fired rubber bullets to disperse the crowds and made more than 20 arrests. One man died in a car chase between police and protesters, the Times Live news website cited a local police spokeswoman as saying.
“Service delivery protesters” seeking jobs, better housing, roads and hospitals frequently clash with police in South Africa, where weak economic growth has left more than one in four workers unemployed.
Ramaphosa cut short his visit to Britain on Thursday because of the demonstrations. Calling for calm, he ordered police to exercise maximum restraint and urged those with grievances not to resort to violence.
Foreign Minister Lindiwe Sisulu told state broadcaster SABC on Friday from London that neighbouring Botswana’s decision to close some border points into North West province was a factor behind Ramaphosa’s decision to leave the summit early.
Both countries are members of the Commonwealth, a network of 53 mostly former territories of the British Empire.
The president, a trade union leader turned businessman, has a reputation as a painstaking negotiator after playing a key role in talks to end white minority rule more than 20 years ago.