Every now and again, panic sets in when the people who shape the national debate notice what everyone else has been living with for years. The panic is with us — the country, we are told, is now beyond repair. The immediate cause is violence against immigrants (in theory, anyway — many of the victims have actually been South Africans) and women. But, as panic tends to do, this one has escalated and so we are also told that this is a country with huge inequalities, high levels of violence and some ugly prejudices.

All of this is true — but none of it is new. Anti-immigrant violence, researchers tell us, happens almost daily. Violence against women does happen daily. The only difference between last week’s anti-immigrant violence and most of the rest of the year is that it happened in places the mainstream debate notices — just as township protests are usually noticed only when they spill out onto freeways and so affect the lives of the insiders who shape the debate. The only d...

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