OPINION: The cost of hatred: Tomorrow will be too late

Do we actually understand the consequences of xenophobia? Can our rulers even begin to fathom the cost of the breakdown of social cohesion? We must have a brutally honest discussion with ourselves as South Africans.

"No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."

Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

The genie is out of the bottle. Images of our xenophobic hatred have flooded the world. Can we claim to be the political miracle and the birthplace of Black Consciousness that Biko announced to the world, which inspired us in 1976? Today, across Africa and the world, we are seen increasingly as the birthplace of Afrophobia and black loathing of our African brothers and sisters.

We have more than 10 million foreign tourists per year. More than half are from Africa. They contribute more than 3 % of our GDP. This is an economic risk that faces us. Already China, UK and Australia have issued travel warnings.

Do we actually understand the consequences? The loss of innocent lives, the looting and loss of livelihoods are just the beginning. We cannot quantify the psychological terror, the fear and pain that have struck the social fabric of everyone in SA, in every home.

The question is: Where will this terrorism end? Who will be next?

The deployment of the military, the sight of armed police shooting live ammunition against angry mobs armed with hammers, knobkieries and machetes displayed on TV screens and on social media across the world, the angry and violent rhetoric sometimes heard on our radio stations - it all plays a massive and horrible role in introducing a collective psychosis in our society.

Xenophobia, coming on the back of everyday violence, violence against protesting workers, such as we saw in the Marikana Massacre, and the daily service delivery protests we see in our country, further deepens the sense of insecurity of all citizens.

The danger is that violence is still a language that many in South Africa see as the means to solve our problems. It is part of the violent past we never resolved - the generalised violence against women and children, the rape and the criminality. And therein lays the kernel of our dilemma: Do we understand the social, economic and political risks we face across Africa and the world?

Can our rulers even begin to fathom the cost of the breakdown of social cohesion?

So let us have a brutally honest discussion with ourselves as South Africans:

Are we a broken society? What is our identity? What are our values? What is our humanity? Are our democratic traditions, our proud Madiba legacy of human rights, social justice and solidarity but a false veneer?

Do we lack the leaders capable of leading us to the better life we promised our people in 1994? I find the surprise today expressed by our leaders across the political spectrum just plain hypocrisy. Xenophobia has been incubating its hatred for some time now. Are we all guilty of a grand conspiracy of silence on the underlying causes of the horrors of the past few weeks?

Those of us who could have acted have done very little in our safe cocoons, insulated from the discontent raging in our townships and slums. As Frantz Fanon wrote, "The unpreparedness of the educated classes, the lack of practical links between them and the mass of the people, their laziness, and, let it be said, their cowardice at the decisive moment of the struggle, will give rise to tragic mishaps."

Beyond our HIV/AIDS denialism, we have repeated recurrences of other denials, the latest being on xenophobia. We know the deep seething anger in our townships, squatter camps and brutalised dormitories that have not changed since Apartheid. Anger that just needs a spark of xenophobic opportunism to light a fire that today has left our townships with a river of blood, looted livelihoods and shattered dignity.

Bishop Paul Verryn spoke of "futureless youth" and a legacy of institutional mistrust and discrimination that steals from the poor and gives to the rich. The real enemy is a culture of corruption that reserves opportunities for the elite and excludes everybody else. This is the reality we have to face today.

In 1994 President Mandela made a promise that "Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another."

Do we understand the gravity of this lifelong commitment?

We are at a crossroads today.

We want a government that listens, that is accountable and honest.

We want leadership that serves society and not themselves, their private and family interests.

We want leaders who rule with our consent and not the collusion of predatory interests who undermine our Constitution and our public institutions.

We want an end to corruption that undermines our trust in our government, business and our civil society organisations.

We want our human dignity restored and for social justice to prevail.

This is the moment of truth for the next generation. If you want to protect your future and want our democracy to mean more than the right to vote every five years, then you must become leaders of today. Because tomorrow will be too late. It's hard work. It means going organising street by street, township by township, and village by village. My hope is that our wave of outrage against xenophobia will morph into a powerful movement against corruption and for accountability.

I am exhausted by fighting racism, xenophobia, violence and human greed. Are you not? But I'll never give up. I hope you won't either.

This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.