NATHI Mthethwa, the police minister, has provided quite a spectacle lately, arguing with critics over the difference between xenophobia and so-called xenophobia.

According to Mthethwa, it is alarmist to speak out against possible violence against foreigners. Mthethwa says the few incidents of violence against immigrants recorded in the Western Cape recently are not displays of the xenophobic violence many have been warning against. They are criminal actions (true) linked to what he derisively says is "so- called" xenophobia.

It is possible that Mthethwa honestly believes that there is a difference between xenophobic violence and so-called xenophobic violence. It is probable he thinks there is nothing special about crime committed against foreigners, that what we have seen in the Western Cape is simply crime with no xenophobic intent. It is far more likely, however, that his refusal to listen to warnings of possible violence against foreigners stems from the African National Congress (ANC) arrogance we have come to know so well.

It is far more likely that he is displaying the know-it-all arrogance that has made it all but impossible for the national ANC elite (President Jacob Zuma, his ministers and senior leaders of the organisation) to come to terms with what is going on in the land over which they have ruled for the past 16 years. It was not that long ago that Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale blamed community protests against ANC leaders on Thabo Mbeki. Sexwale's observation was intended to explain why so-called service delivery protests had grown in number and intensity under Zuma. It failed.

Sexwale was followed by Lindiwe Sisulu, the defence minister, who suggested that community protests were led by unemployed and uneducated youths with no outlet for their pent-up energies. She proposed a stint in the defence force for the young, saying national service would give them discipline. This would presumably discourage young people from burning down bare library shelves and vandalising community clinics and municipal buildings.

Behind Sexwale's, Sisulu's and now Mthethwa's arrogance lies a hardheaded refusal to accept that the ANC is not infallible, that the organisation will not - contrary to the hopes of Zuma and many others - rule until the second coming of Jesus of Nazareth. The ANC elite refuses to accept that communities might have legitimate grounds for protest against the ANC. Community protests are more often than not put down to the political pathologies of the communities concerned. Communities that protest against ANC rule are said to be politically unsophisticated, under the sway of disgruntled political entrepreneurs or full of innocent youths with no outlet for their frustrations.

To be sure, there is a lot to be said for the role of political entrepreneurs in many of the protests that have rocked communities since Zuma assumed power last year. However, these entrepreneurs are not the cause of the protests and they are not the reason for the protests. They might provide the match but the fuel for the fires that engulf communities stems from legitimate grievances about poor service delivery, corruption and infighting within the ANC. To say otherwise is to patronise communities that resort to direct action. It is to suggest that communities do not know what is in their interest.

None of this is to suggest that violence against political opponents or foreigners is ever legitimate. No amount of poverty, anger with the ANC over poor service delivery or disdain for immigrants can ever justify or explain the xenophobic violence we saw in May 2008. South Africans are indeed nice people, as police chief Bheki Cele said recently. But they can also be violent.

So, what would it take for Mthethwa and his colleagues in the ANC to take seriously the fear that SA could see a repeat of the pogroms we saw in May 2008? What would it take for the ANC elite to learn that they cannot exist in a parallel universe - where the only truth that matters is the truth decreed by the ANC? To ask these questions is to ask what it would take to humble the ANC elite, to make them realise they cannot continue helping themselves to the national kitty without any sense of shame. It is to say that the ANC elite cannot continue to govern as if their political mandate comes directly from the gods.

There will, of course, come a time when the ANC will not be SA's ruling party. There will come a time when the ANC will be, like many former liberation movements, a sadder caricature of its former self.

Do members of the ANC elite know this? One must suspect they do. Otherwise, why would they be so grubby in their approach to the spoils of office? Would they be so arrogant if they did not have a zero-sum approach to power? Mthethwa refuses to listen today because he likely expects that there will come a day when no one will listen to him.

- Dlamini is author of Native Nostalgia (Jacana, 2009).