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KHAYELITSHA, South Africa (Reuters) - South Africa will not tolerate the violence and destruction of property that have accompanied nationwide protests against a lack of basic services in townships, President Jacob Zuma said on Tuesday.
Protests over poor infrastructure in townships have increased pressure on Zuma following his election in April to meet campaign promises to improve the lives of millions of black South Africans still living in poverty 15 years after the end of apartheid.
"There is no cause in a democratic and free society, however legitimate, that justifies the wanton destruction of property and violence that we have witnessed," Zuma told a special meeting attended by mayors of the country's 283 municipalities.
"This government will not tolerate the destruction of property, the violence and the intimidation that often accompanies protests," Zuma said.
Police last week fired teargas and rubber bullets to break up protests in several townships. Protesters blockaded roads with burning barricades and have also burnt down libraries and the homes of local government officials.
Zuma said South African towns and cities were at the forefront of providing basic services such as sanitation, electricity and water, but were weakened by poor financial management, corruption and political battles for control of resources.
Since the end of apartheid in 1994, progress has been made in providing these services to millions of South Africans, Zuma said.
"But it is also true that significant backlogs remain. It is clear that we need to do more, and that we need to do things differently."
He said fundamental changes were needed to reform governance in municipalities, including separating the executive functions from administrative ones.
"We should emerge here with a common understanding and commitment to do everything we can to effect a turnaround in local government," Zuma said.
But he said the global economic crisis and South Africa's first recession since 1992, were hurting the government's attempts at improving the lives of the poor.
"Many municipalities are bankrupt, many people are unemployed and cannot pay for services which means revenue collection is stagnant and the tax base has shrunk," Zuma said.
(Reporting by Wendell Roelf; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Reuters