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Opinionista

Today, I do not love my country

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Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law.

It’s hard to understand South Africa sometimes, and how quickly things become heated and how inured we have become to the violence which is so much part of our language and landscape.

The past few days in South Africa have been chaotic, turbulent, violent.

Things seem to be falling apart; the centre is not holding.

Many of our country’s inner cities are aflame, driven by the toxic mix of inequality, poverty, xenophobia and general lawlessness. At the same time, we hear of the murder of four women in Cape Town alone – three murders in the space of 10 days.

That excludes the six-year-old girl shot dead in a school on the Cape Flats. Who can keep up with the daily offering of crime and violence?

At UCT, students hold candlelight vigils for murdered student Uyinene Mrwetyana whose only “crime” was to collect a parcel at her local post office, which is metres away from a police station.

Senzeni na, the students cried, sang and wept on the steps overlooking a beautiful yet troubled and deeply violent city. “What have we done?” The new struggle for all our freedom must start here. We are all Uyinene.

Amid it all was the silence of the president. Eventually, his words came on Tuesday – a statement about violence against women and support for the victims’ families. It felt insipid. At times of national crisis, citizens look to their leaders to articulate that which is in the national consciousness. There is collective pain and trauma, anger and frustration. But at such a time citizens also want a plan of action. Does the president understand this fully? The words simply ring hollow when we know Uyinene was not the first and she will not be the last. Neither will Jessie Hess, Meghan Cremer or Lynette Volschenk be the last as they form part of a sad parade of murdered women in our country.

This is a national crisis. So how then can tomorrow be as before?

The equivalent silence on the current mayhem in cities was equally deafening until midday on Tuesday when Ramaphosa condemned the violence and spoke of convening the security cluster to ensure that a watchful eye is kept on the city hot spots. The day before, Police Minister Bheki Cele called the violence a “national emergency”. A weak state responding with weak talk.

Our inner cities have long been places of discontent and violence. Yet, in the typically South African way, we have chosen to ignore the degradation and depravity. Most South African companies have abandoned the inner cities. In cities like Johannesburg, the centres of commerce in Sandton flourish in shiny buildings, the one taller than the other. And without a shred of irony, the tag “world-class city” still welcomes one on the outskirts of OR Tambo Airport. Johannesburg is not exceptional as we have seen the violence and looting spread to Pretoria and beyond.

At the same time, truck drivers have barricaded some areas, “protesting” against the hiring of foreign truck drivers. Sadly, protest is not new and neither is this level of xenophobic violence. We remember 2008 as a frightening time when the “Burning Man” covered the front pages of local and international newspapers.

Ernesto Nhamuave, a 35-year-old Mozambican was burned alive during xenophobic violence on the East Rand in May 2008, violence that spread across the country. Of course, many in government refused to call it xenophobia. That seemed and often still seems a step too far.

In 2015, the streets of Durban and surrounding townships were seething with anger and violence as foreigners and locals battled it out. The government finally stepped in to prevent a bloodbath in Durban, yet it was largely reactive. Then, King Goodwill Zwelethini was quoted as saying all foreigners should return to the places they came from. At the time, the government refused to speak out against these blatantly inciteful comments and the king himself blamed the media for misinterpreting what he said. Where have we heard that before?

Xenophobic comments made by the then-Minister of Water and Sanitation, Nomvula Mokonyane and Minister of Small Business Lindiwe Zulu, also made headlines during those incidents. It was Zulu who said that foreigners were here as a “courtesy”. They received no sanction for their comments from former president Jacob Zuma. No wonder then that poor, unemployed locals deemed it appropriate to vent their anger on foreigners. Rhetoric matters.

For his part, former minister of police Nathi Nhleko believed it was all about semantics: this was “Afro-phobia”, not xenophobia, we were told. Similarly, the pre-election xenophobic rhetoric, in some measure fuelled by politicians of all stripes, especially in hotly-contested Gauteng, has helped incite the chaos of the past week.

As with everything else in South Africa, the reasons for violence are complex. Sometimes it has been driven by xenophobia, other times a rather more confusing cocktail of anger, frustration and intolerance bubbling at the surface of our society. It is fuelled by exclusion, poverty and rampant unemployment. We seem to be straining at the seams as the repercussions of deep inequalities, our inability to bring about structural economic transformation post-1994 and the old baggage of the apartheid years come to haunt us. Xenophobic sentiment runs so very deep in South Africa – partly another fall-out of the parochial apartheid years and the fear of “the other”.

The environment is ripe for blaming “the other” while competing for scarce resources. We know only too well that violence has always been a part of the South African landscape: physical violence and the violence of language and name-calling. In countless works of research on local government and conflict in municipalities, the same mantra is heard over and over again: “They only come when we start to burn things.”

They” are the politicians who have the power to change things, yet often are unwilling or unable to listen.

It’s hard to understand South Africa sometimes, and how quickly things become heated and how inured we have become to the violence which is so much part of our language and landscape.

So, in a week in which words fail us in the face of the unrelenting challenge of a lack of social cohesion and sweeping violence across our society, Ingrid de Kok’s searing poem, Today I do not love my country, written during the xenophobic violence of 2008, seems apposite. Sometimes the beloved country demands too much of those who live in it, and lament is all there is.

Today I do not love my country

South Africa, May 2008

Today I do not love my country.
It is venal, it is cruel.
Lies are open sewers in the street.
Threats scarify the walls.

Tomorrow I may defend my land
when others X-ray the evidence:
feral shadows, short sharp knives.
I may argue our grievous inheritance.

On Wednesday I may let the winded stars
fall into my lap, breathe air’s golden ghee,
smell the sea’s salt cellar, run my fingers
along the downy arm of the morning.

I may on Thursday read of a hurt child
given refuge and tended by neighbours,
sing with others the famous forgiving man
who has forgotten who were enemies, who friends.

But today, today, I cannot love my country.
It staggers in the dark, lurches in a ditch.
A curdled mob drives people into pens,
brands them like cattle,
only holds a stranger’s hand
to press it into fire,
strings firecrackers through a child,
burns stores and shacks, burns. DM

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