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Two killed in S.African riots over municipal boundaries

Two people were killed in violent protests Tuesday over plans to redraw the boundaries of an industrial town south of Johannesburg, police said.

One died from gunshot wounds after officers used rubber bullets and water cannon against a crowd of rioters that had besieged a police station in Sasolburg town.

“The crowd attacked the police station and shots were fired. After everything had calmed, it was discovered that one person was fatally wounded,” police spokesman Sam Makhele told AFP.

He said it was unclear if the gunshot wounds were from a rubber bullet or from a regular round. The second fatality occurred when a businessman opened fire as a mob attacked his shop.

The rampaging crowd from Zamdela, a shantytown next to Sasolburg, some 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of Johannesburg, had looted shops and burnt property to protest a decision to incorporate their town into a neighbouring municipality.

Protesting residents are opposed to the merger because they see the neighbouring municipality as poorly run and corrupt.

“The Ngwathe municipality has run itself into the ground and we as residents of Metsimaholo do not want to be associated with those thieves,” Zamdela resident and protester Sam Mthembu told the Mail and Guardian.

Protesters also turned on journalists, and a freelance French photographer was hit on the head with rocks.

“We were driving out of the informal settlement … and a group of about 20 (to) 40 guys turned on the car and started pelting it with rocks,” said Alon Skuy, a fellow photographer who works for the The Times newspaper.

“We drove through to try to escape. All the windows were broken. In the process (the photographer) was hit in the head. She went immediately to hospital. She’s fine now,” he told AFP.

Makhele said 180 people were arrested for public violence, looting and malicious damage to property.

The protests forced the ministry of cooperative governance to suspend plans to redraw boundaries.

“The minister has undertaken to suspend the demarcation process and set up a task team to review the process,” spokesman Mpho Legkoro said, insisting the process hadn’t been scrapped.

Peter Montalto, a strategist with the emerging market think tank Nomura, raised concern about the level of increased violence at South African protests.

“The fact that violence can escalate over an issue that seems so small shows the underlying social tensions,” he said.

In 2007, deadly violence erupted in a northwestern township of Khutsong, as residents fought being cut from wealthy Gauteng province.