In violent street battles reminiscent of the worst days of apartheid, police opened fire on crowds with rubber bullets and tear gas. Some of those who turned a "peaceful" demonstration into a riot also appeared heavily armed. At least one policeman was shot in the back by automatic rifle fire.
Two children, a boy and a girl, were shot at a petrol station in Eldorado Park township, where the worst violence occurred. They appear to have been caught in a shoot-out between looters and police. Two reporters were also shot.
The fighting went on all day. As burning tyres threw up thick black smoke at makeshift barricades, and demonstrators stoned drivers who had ignored the work "stay-away", which brought their neighbourhoods to a standstill, army units were called in to back up the police.
That a demonstration against rent and service charges could have degenerated into ugliness so quickly demonstrates the level of violence that lurks beneath the surface in South Africa. It also illustrates the government's difficulty in running a country which black liberation - in order to prevail - rendered ungovernable.
In townships all over South Africa, the government is failing to persuade people to pay for services and rent. The boycott culture, which grew up during the struggle against white rule, still dominates the country, in spite of President Nelson Mandela's appeals to people to pay up and build a new South Africa.
The national Masakhane (Zulu for "lets work together") campaign has failed to win people over. Starved of revenue, local government is in crisis. The Southern Metro Council, which overseas the townships where yesterday's trouble flared, said it was owed 600 million rands (pounds 80m) in unpaid bills.
Yesterday's demonstrations, organised by the largely Coloured South Western Joint Civics Association (Sawejoca), were sparked by rumours that the council was planning to cut off electricity to those who had run up arrears and evict non-payers. Last night local ANC officials denied they had ever planned to evict people or cut off electricity.
The organisers claimed that with local unemployment running at 80 per cent, many residents could not afford to pay for services.
There was a racial dimension. The Coloured community feels hard done by.The complaint is that they were never white enough for the former ruling white Nationalists and now are not black enough for the ANC. Amy Williams, Sawejoca's secretary general, said yesterday that Coloureds were being unfairly targeted by the authorities. She claimed no action was being taken in neighbouring Soweto to recover blacks' arrears.
Mr Mandela's "pay up and pull together" appeal has already been snubbed by whites. A few months ago residents and businesses in Sandton, one of the richest neighbourhoods in Johannesburg, opposed a rates hike and their campaign of mass non-payment continues.