OPINION: We can't let xenophobia bubble over

It is an indelible memory, stored amongst the catalogues of recollections of a journalist out in the field: A biting cold Highveld morning, the air thick with the smell of mbaula drum fires and the mist hanging low on the East Rand mine dumps.

What burns brightest in that image filed forever in my memory is the sight of three semi-naked bodies sprawled in a mielie field next to a hostel, their heads cleaved open. One, vaguely discernable as a woman, lay face down with her jeans pulled below her buttocks and her shirt crumpled up, the dirt alongside her wet with ruby red blood. Less than a metre away, an emergency service official worked to set up a drip on an apparently lifeless man, while a police officer with a shotgun slung across his back held the bag up with a raised arm. Who knows how long they had been there, waiting to die?

It was the nadir of the wave of xenophobic violence that rolled through South Africa in 2008 and I had been stationed in the Ramaphosa township, a hotbed of attacks. Just days before this incident, photographers there had captured the gut-wrenching image of Mozambican Ernesto Nhamuave being burnt alive and the picture would become the portrait of that shameful time in South Africa's history.

During the week I spent reporting on the violence, along with a battalion of local and foreign journalists, we witnessed scenes that were etched into our collective memories. We stumbled upon foreigners in shacks, clinging to life after being attacked, and carried them on mattresses to waiting paramedics on the outskirts of the township. We saw livelihoods destroyed as containers housing spaza shops went up in flames or were sent rolling down potholed roads like soccer balls. We interviewed impassioned young men clutching axes, sticks and pangas and listened as they explained why they were chasing the makwerekwere (a derogatory term for foreigners) away from their neighbourhoods. In impromptu 'refugee camps' set up in police stations, churches and fields, we watched mothers comfort children, trying to explain to them why they had been forced to flee their homes, having already spent lifetimes fleeing war and uncertainty in the hope of new beginnings.

It took long, far too long, for government to act in 2008. But finally President Thabo Mbeki spoke, offering remorse and an apology "with heads bowed in shame because it has seemed that what happened in our country in May betrayed the dreams of many generations, including our own". The army was deployed and the violence quelled. There were excuses of a 'criminal element' being responsible, suggestions that the violence was instigated by a 'third hand' with a political agenda and that there were financial incentives. There were academic studies and investigations by non-governmental organisations, task teams were set up and recommendations were made.

Then South Africa put the xenophobic attacks in a box, put on the lid, and moved on.

But the problem has been bubbling on, percolating in townships and informal settlements across the country and we would be fools to think otherwise.

This is evident from the isolated incidents reported in the media of Somali shopkeepers being stoned to death and of their shops being looted by angry mobs as ineffective police officers stood by idly. The true extent of the personal fear and terror is best illustrated in Jonny Steinberg's A Man of Good Hope, a revealing account of Somali shopkeeper Asad Abdullahi. It feels as though it has been Abdullahi's face staring at me each time this week that TV news inserts have shown Somali shopkeepers in KwaZulu-Natal desperately trying to rescue their produce from rampaging mobs.

This week the simmering has boiled over yet again. Foreign-owned shops have been targeted, at least five people have been killed, families have been chased from their homes and cars have been set alight. The politicians have rolled in, condemning the violence. They've debated over semantics and whether it is technically 'xenophobia' or rather 'Afrophobia'. Criminal elements have again been blamed. A peace march has even been planned. They are hoping to contain the situation within KwaZulu-Natal in the hope that it does not spread.

But we know, South Africa, that it takes just one spark to light the tinderbox, particularly if it has been left to simmer for far too long. It doesn't help for politicians to step up only when tensions are high and there is pressure. They should have been providing leadership within communities over the past seven years, working to change the social constructs and reshaping opinions on foreigners.

We need to find a way to breed acceptance and co-operation within our communities and to quell the resentment and jealousy. If we don't, the situation will continue to boil over time and time again. We have more than enough indelible images of violent attacks on foreigners filed away in our memory banks. I know I do. And I don't want to see any more.

_Mandy Wiener is a freelance journalist and author working for _ Eyewitness News . Follow her on Twitter: @mandywiener