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JUDITH FEBRUARY: Uyinene was not the first and she won't be the last

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 a general lawlessness.

At the same time, we hear of the murder of four women in Cape Town alone - three murders in the space of ten days. That excludes the 6-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 Mrwetwana whose only ‘crime’ was to collect a parcel at her local post office, which is metres away from the local 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.

And amidst it all was the silence of the president. Eventually, his words came on Tuesday - a statement on violence against women and support for the victims’ families. It just 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 that Uyinene was not the first and she will not be the last. Neither will Jesse 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 hotspots. 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 abandoned the inner cities. In cities like Johannesburg, the centres of commerce in Sandton and such like 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 International Airport.

Johannesburg is no exception 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 the frightening time when the ‘Burning Man’ covered the front pages of local and international newspapers. Ernesto Nhamuave, a 35-year-old Mozambican, was burnt alive during xenophobic violence on the East Rand in May 2008, sparking xenophobic 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. 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 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 Nomvula Mokonyane, Minister of Water and Sanitation, as well as Lindiwe Zulu, Minister of Small Business, 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 Zuma. No wonder then that poor, unemployed locals deemed it fit to vent their anger at 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 fueled by politicians of all stripes, especially in hotly-contested Gauteng, has in some way led to 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, others times a rather more confusing cocktail of anger, frustration, violence 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 apartheid years come to haunt us. Xenophobic sentiment runs so very deep in South Africa - partly another fall-out of parochial apartheid years and the fear of ‘the other’.

The environment is ripe for blaming ‘the other’, while competing for scarce resources.

We also 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 pieces 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 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, Alan Paton’s words still ring true:

“There is not much talking now. A silence falls upon them all. This is no time to talk of hedges and fields, or the beauties of any country. Sadness and fear and hate, how they well up in the heart and mind, whenever one opens pages of these messengers of doom. Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone. Aye, and cry aloud for the man who is dead, for the woman and children bereaved. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end. The sun pours down on the earth, on the lovely land that man cannot enjoy. He knows only the fear of his heart.”

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy' which is available. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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