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Unless you live in a cardboard box – and far too many people do now, if they are even alive at all – you will have noticed in the news that Johannesburg, and increasingly the various metros, are now alive with the worst sort of murderous rage and frustration. This set of photos, taken by various people in and around the violence today, pretty much sums up the whole sad and painful week. So what has the response been?

Jacob Zuma was on the front page of today’s star as having asked the murderous rabble to please stop singing Umshini Wami, as it is an ANC song and they are disgracing the legacy of the ANC. President Mbeki has convened a team of experts to look at the situation and report back to tell him the fucking obvious as soon as possible. Winnie Mandela has apologised. The police have been working night and day to save lives and, frankly, have been heroes but by all accounts are struggling to keep pace with the violence as it jumps from settlement to settlement. Nobody has called the army or declared a state of emergency. it would be funny, were it not that the lack of leadership in the opening days of the crisis has meant that it now threatens to go on a lot longer than it should. Not to imply that there is a time period that I would prefer my xenophobic rampages to be prolonged for.

I am no reporter, or political analyst, or anything remotely qualified to spell out the facts of what is going on first hand, suffice to reiterate that it is possibly (definitely?) the bloodiest violence I can recall since the run up to the 1994 elections. What the last few days have driven home in a stark fashion are a number of unsettling realisations.

We have less time than we thought we did

Anyone who pays attention to the socioeconomic indicators in South Africa would tell you that we are one of the most economically divided countries in the world. We regularly mudwrestle Brazil for the top spot of nations with the most yawning gulf between those who have everything and those who have nothing at all. I am told that we have recently won this accolade. I am also told that we had one of the highest incidences of socioeconomically motivated protests in the world last year.

That we cannot ask ‘the people’ to wait forever for a basic job, food and a safe environment to live in is just a simple observation. Increasingly though, the question has come up in conversation with strangers as to exactly how long we can ask everyone who has nothing to hang on, while we acquire our new cars, leafy townhouse complexes and weekend middle class indulgences. The general response to that question has always seemed to be either that we probably have something like another decade until people get really grumpy, or that they wouldn’t really get all uppity about it – certianly not so much as to threaten our precious economic security. Well? Would you wait fourteen years after 1994 to be given freedom from violent insecurity, water, a basic wage and your dignity – without a squeak? Would you wait until 2018?

I think we should all realise at this point that we face the real prospect that people are starting to get tired of waiting. When the foreigners have fled, and there are still no jobs or improvement, can we really be so naive as to think that people will start to be ok with their situations for another few years?

This is anger that has no formal voice in South Africa

Where were the big protests that would have given government a good shake and told them that problems were coming? Where were the civil society groups representing these economically angry folk and explaining – with the weight of their protests – that they were unhappy and getting unhappier? Violence on this scale should not just pop out of nowhere like this. It is deeply disturbing that there can be something so important on people’s minds that they will kill their neighbours en masse over it, but that it found no voice through the formal political process, through civil society, or any other channel that might exist for them to reach the ear of government. That the government, furthermore, was taken by such surprise is an indicator of just how broken the channels of communication between those who wield power and those they represent have become. When people cannot find expression for their anger and frustration through the ‘normal’ machinery of democracy, then stuff like this happens. That this disconnect between what is clearly a severe socioeconomic storm and government appears to be more a feature of power in South Africa than an unlucky lack of communication is even more disturbing still.

I think we are missing the issue

Lots of the early analysis and opinion stuff which has emerged from recent events have focused on the fact that we seem to have become a terribly xenophobic society – so much so that things like this can take place. And yes, that is an important and astute (is it really, given what has just happened) observation, and the government would be terribly neglectful not to realise the importance of promoting tolerance and make some energetic inroads in this regard.

What people have not yet commented on, as far as I have seen the issue covered, is that xenophobia is not the why behind this tragedy, but the how. Foreigners were not killed because they were foreign, but because they were seen to have taken economic opportunities from those who have none. This violence has a root in inequality, in grinding poverty forced to watch opulent luxury in the new South Africa. When the last foreigner has fled the townships, this why behind the issue will remain. And unless something meaningful is done to give it an answer, it will find more avenues of expression.

Xenophobia is a big and impressive word. But inequality is the far more important one.