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OPINION: Do you still love your country?

Our country is a confused and confusing place. It is also brutally violent and intolerant. 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 parochial apartheid years come to haunt us.

The streets of Durban and surrounding townships seethe with anger and violence as foreigners and locals battle it out. What for, one wonders; turf, economic opportunity and a sense of belonging? Government has finally stepped in to prevent a bloodbath in Durban, yet it has been largely reactive. Recently, King Goodwill Zwelethini was quoted as saying all foreigners should return to the places they came from. Of course, government has failed to speak out against these blatantly inciteful comments and the king himself has blamed the media for misinterpreting what he said. Where have we heard that before?

Although the king seems to have carte blanche in what he says and what he demands from the fiscus, let us not blame this on King Goodwill alone. He clearly enjoys political cover. But, one recalls xenophobic comments made by Nomvula Mokonyane, minister of Water and Sanitation as well as Lindiwe Zulu, Minister of Small Business, who said that foreigners were here as a 'courtesy'. They received no sanction for their comments and certainly the president didn't seem to bat an eyelid. No wonder then that poor, unemployed locals have deemed it fit to vent their anger at foreigners. Rhetoric matters, as this government is always so slow to figure out.

Clearly, Minister of Police Nathi Nhleko believes it's all about semantics: this is 'Afrophobia' not xenophobia, he told us on Tuesday. According to Nhleko, this categorisation will assist us in dealing better with the problems at hand.

Quite naïve when xenophobic sentiment runs so very deep in South Africa - partly another fall-out of parochial apartheid years and the fear of 'the other'.

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 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 the indignity of grinding poverty, Ingrid De Kok's searing poem, Today I do not love my country, written during the xenophobic violence of 2008, must be called to mind.

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.

Yet as deep divisions threaten to pull us apart, the defacement of apartheid and colonial statues continues. It is another proxy battle for the one we must rage to ensure genuine transformation in our country. The #Rhodesmustfall campaign at UCT seems to have unwittingly led to a 'copy-cat' effect with various statues around the country being spray-painted or defaced in some way. The motive for defacement has not always been clear and in some cases it has been somewhat arbitrary. It has led to debates about transformation and belonging, some thoughtful, some less so. In fact, some have been unbearably one-sided and intolerant.

As UCT academic Xolela Mangcu argues, all campaigns and movements are somehow filled with contradictions. That might well be but we have seen the seeds of intolerance in the #Rhodesmustfall campaign with its chants of 'one settler, one bullet' for instance. Some have expressed concern that such intolerance might give way to a larger anti-intellectual sentiment in which alternative viewpoints are silenced. That would be a pity because we need to be able to learn the art of listening to each other, engagement and persuasion. No university and certainly no democratic society is able to thrive without these attributes.

In that spirit again, De Kok's Bring the statues back, written about 10 years ago, provides a different perspicacious perspective which is worth engaging with too - perhaps especially now.

Bring the statues back

Nobody lives in Verwoerdburg or Triomf anymore.

Names have changed,

some chiseled leaders of the past

been relocated or sold to foreigners.

Remember the gasp, the sheer delight:

(in memory filmed in black and white)

apartheid's architect a dangling man

at the end of a winch on a crane?

We hear he then was moved

to a garage in Bloemfontein

where his chipped statue friends

gaze at him disconsolately.

How easy, after all

to remove a world,

to erase a crooked line

and start again.

But the memory of a belted policeman,

his moustache like a dog on a leash -

let's not lose that, or we'll begin to believe

DRC church spires were darning needles.

And let's not forget suburban gates, dogs barking,

the duplicity of post-office and liquor store.

If we auction the statue's buttons

we might forget the monumental overcoat.

Let's put Verwoerd back

on a public corner like a blister on the lips;

let's walk past him and his molded hat and snor,

direct traffic through his legs,

and the legs of his cronies of steel and stone.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies.

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