The xenophobic attacks in Soweto in which four people were killed last week are a chilling reminder that while our politicians convene inquiries and mull constitutional amendments, things have deteriorated to a worrying extent on the streets.

The deaths occurred during a spate of attacks and looting aimed at shops owned by foreign nationals in Soweto and elsewhere in the country’s economic hub. It was only the latest flare-up in a pattern that has been repeated for years: mobs of mainly unemployed young people descend on spaza shops owned by the foreign nationals who have increasingly won business away from their local competitors.

On Wednesday a Somali shopowner, fearing for his own life, opened fire and killed a 23-year-old customer, Banele Qhayisa. Police arrested 27 people for looting and detained some shopowners for the deaths of looters.

It speaks to the bristling conflict in areas where the scramble for survival is the most desperate that one scrappy incident is all it takes to ignite the tinder. These are the classic symptoms of crushingly high unemployment and glacial economic growth.

In this case, the spark that lit this fuse was allegations that the shops were selling food past its expiration date. But this was just a pretext for the looting that followed. Ekurhuleni mayor Mzwandile Masina did no-one any favours when he accused the foreign shopowners of selling "dangerous food". He only made it worse.

It was never about expired food. That was starkly demonstrated by the eagerness with which looters made off with said expired goods. Rather it was, and will continue to be, about scarce resources, an unemployment rate north of 37% (at its widest definition), shrinking economic opportunities and tension over unchecked immigration.

A recent report from RMB highlighted how immigrant inflows into SA, against rapidly rising emigration, have had a net negative impact on household spending, given the much higher rates of spending by those leaving the country than those arriving.

As if to accentuate this point, on Tuesday StatsSA revealed that SA had slipped into a technical recession after two consecutive quarters of negative growth.

Growth contracted 0.7% from April to June, after shrinking by 2.6% in the first quarter. Agriculture, it seems, was the main culprit. Which is rather unfortunate as the figures coincide with a rather messy debate on confiscating land without paying for it.

But the point is, this contraction in the country’s accounts is being felt in a very visceral sense on the streets, as last week’s events in Soweto illustrate. It would be nice if the politicians were to show the same fervour in dealing with these real issues as they do in launching commissions of inquiry at the drop of a hat.

Will transferring land to people who need it help defuse these tensions? It might. That remains a considerable unknown. What is clear is that for more than a decade, the government hasn’t transferred the land it has already taken to those who need it.

In this context, a debate about expropriating land without payment is neither here nor there. The real issue is the fact that people who need resources do not have them. Would a regime of expropriation without compensation ease the tensions in SA’s most economically fraught areas?

Well, no — not if the government continues to do as little as it has done so far to provide resources to those who need them, which is pretty much nothing.

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