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Sorrow is not enough to fix ourselves and our country


Mark Rountree is a scientist, water resource specialist and accidental politician. He is currently the National Policy Officer for Good:

I am heartbroken for the families and friends of the women and girls murdered, depressed at the fate of employees and owners of businesses ruined by xenophobic looting and violence. But sorrow is not enough.

How did we get here? I was born in South Africa and I am gay. In this, the land of my birth, I am a minority within a minority. And I am grateful for that, because it is much safer and easier to be white and gay in South Africa than to be a black man from another African country, or worse, a black South African woman.

Last week I participated in Professor Thuli Madonsela’s inaugural Social Justice Summit. Here, we were reminded of our country’s progressive Constitution and advised by leaders from Kenya and elsewhere to strive to make the Constitution a lived experience for all citizens. Rights on paper are not enough.

The following days of violence against foreigners, of the wicked rapes and murders of women and girls by men – some strangers, some whom they knew intimately – present the hard evidence of the cruel and vast abyss between the lived experience of women and minorities versus the rights promised in our Constitution.

I am heartbroken for the families and friends of the women and girls murdered, depressed at the fate of employees and owners of businesses ruined by xenophobic looting and violence. Sorrow is not enough, because if we do not acknowledge how we got here and learn from it, we cannot fix ourselves and our country.

From 2009 to 2018, the ruling party elevated Jacob Zuma to the highest office in the land. Julius Malema, the proud kingmaker in Zuma’s ascension to power, said the young woman who accused him of rape must have enjoyed herself. The judgment in that case found Zuma not guilty of raping Khwezi, but stated that his actions were totally unacceptable”. Was this the catalyst to further undermine respect for women’s rights in our society? Since then, many political parties have bullied and vilified female leaders, targeted women journalists and some senior leaders are facing charges for allegedly raping young women in their parties.

Politicians are unfortunately also at the forefront of fuelling xenophobia. Nine months ago, City of Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba reportedly renowned for his populist and xenophobic rhetoric and actionsproudly undertook his first citizen’s arrest. As justification for targeting a foreign entrepreneur, he accused foreigners of bringing ebola into our cities. Several political parties promised to build Trump-style detention facilities for foreigners. Today Johannesburg is burning. Foreign entrepreneurs are being targeted. We have learned nothing from history.

In May 2008, xenophobic violence left 60 people dead and displaced tens of thousands more. Investigations by the Human Sciences Research Council and High Commission of the United Kingdom noted the role that inflammatory attitudes and statements of government leaders played in fuelling xenophobic violence. No different to what happened in Germany in the 1930s or Rwanda in the 1990s. Leaders lead, and if they lead in the wrong direction, many tend to follow regardless.

Former President Nelson Mandela said we can build a society grounded on friendship and our common humanity – a society founded on tolerance”. Although he said he believed this was the only road open to us, the violence within our society shows us that it is not true. We will have to choose that road of tolerance, friendship and common humanity.

Make that choice. Make it in your home, your school, your church, your neighbourhood and your city. If your peers or leaders perpetuate intolerance against minorities or anyone weaker than themselves, speak out or report them. Let them know you will not accept it. We, our mothers, daughters, neighbours and all people living in this country, deserve better. DM

Mark Rountree is National Policy Officer for GOOD (


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