OPINION: It's been a pretty bad week for South Africa

No matter which way one looks at it, it's been a pretty bad week for South Africa.

What could be more horrendous than the Sunday Times front page picture of Emmanuel Sithole being stabbed to death on the streets of Alexandra township? South Africa seems to have taken on pariah status as countries on the continent reel from the violence against their respective citizens. The diplomatic and economic consequences of these recent outbreaks of xenophobic violence are far-reaching as South Africa closes its consulate in Lagos for fear of reprisals.

It is hard to find the words during these times when solidarity with those affected seems so shallow in the face of violence and death. Will another march or candle-light vigil actually help quell the violence and in the longer term stop the hatred?

We are not all like that, one wants to cry as images of violence fill the screens daily.

Government's response has been to say and do pretty much the right things, yet President Zuma could not bring himself to sanction King Zwelethini publicly for his comments. In that therefore, the president and the entire Cabinet remains complicit in the degree to which things have spiralled out of control. Several warnings have been given to government since 2008 regarding xenophobic outbreaks in townships and elsewhere. These have mostly been met with inaction. So, much of government's actions now seem like too little, too late. For all the xenophobic violence we have seen over the years, only one individual has been arrested. Surely that indicates a failure by the prosecuting authorities to take these matters seriously?

But the xenophobic violence has shown very starkly the high price South Africa is paying, and will continue to pay, for unsustainable levels of inequality as well as the degradation of the inner cities of South Africa. In both Durban and Johannesburg, inner cities have been allowed to sink into cesspits containing hijacked buildings and filth. A mixture of foreigners and locals occupy these often derelict, broken spaces and, predictably, they have become a recipe for social conflict. Driving through downtown Pretoria and parts of downtown Johannesburg, one might find it hard to believe that these places of neglect and degradation exist in 'Africa's largest economy', even as the billboards of Johannesburg scream, 'a world-class African city!'. In Alexandra township, hostels replicate apartheid squalor as angry, frustrated men live in unacceptable conditions. Why, one might ask, do hostels still exist in 2015 in South Africa?

Leaving aside inequality and urban decay, government seems to fast be losing the plot when it comes to questions of development. Apart from the inability to keep the lights on, we have focused on 'tinkering at the top', whether it's by building shiny malls in new business districts or through flawed black economic empowerment. Much of the country's development model does not encourage entrepreneurship and small business. This is in evidence in townships across South Africa where levels of entrepreneurship are present but lag far behind other developing countries in Asia for instance.

But one also sometimes wonders at the level of disconnect between politicians and the actual South African reality. Minister in the Presidency, Jeff Radebe, said last week that we are neither a xenophobic country nor a violent one. It may be so that those who commit heinous acts of violence against foreigners do not represent us all, however ours is a country steeped in the history and language of violence. So, yes, minister, we are a violent society and that fact will not change very soon. Given the furious news cycle South Africans live through daily, it is easy to be inured to horror sometimes. Lest we forget it was our very own police force who dragged Mozambican, Mido Macia, from a police van along a busy road in broad daylight. The very same police now guard the streets of Alexandra township.

Amidst all of this, the peacemakers have arisen. This week Wits vice-chancellor, Adam Habib, and the deputy chair of the SA Human Rights Commission held a press conference ahead of a peace coalition march against xenophobia. Pregs Govender, ever-clear and measured, spoke of the investigation into the king's comments and warned politicians to be careful of careless rhetoric which may inflame an already tense situation. Govender's comments were a thoughtful, dignified reminder that this is a constitutional democracy in which human rights abuses should not be the norm.

We have fallen so far short and as we watch grown men and women crying to leave our country, one wonders how we are able to heal these wounds and unlearn such unspeakable hatred? And then one hears of men in Katlehong guarding the streets so that foreigners will be safe. Nkululeko Saul says, 'We will not allow any madness to occur in our community. We experienced enough violence in the early 90s to last us 10 lifetimes. I am a guard at the corner of my street where a Somali immigrant owns a shop… Katlehong will not ever experience violence by anyone against anybody. Not EVER.'

We need so many more Nkululeko Sauls so that it's not too late to build a country which is gentler and more welcoming.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies.