Genocide memories

2009-04-10 00:00

“THERE are no devils left in hell: they are all in Rwanda”. Those were the observations of a missionary who witnessed the mass killings of 15 years ago. During 100 horrendous days, nearly one million people died. This was genocide, distinguished from others by the fact that it was largely a neighbourhood affair and not centrally organised.

The causes are disputable, the entire truth has yet to emerge and the ripple effect in the Great Lakes region has yet to abate. But the Rwanda experience had something in common with all genocides. They start mundanely, from the denunciation of other groups of people as different and inferior. In this case it was a class difference: those targeted were Tutsi, their enemies insultingly called them inyenzi or cockroaches, and radio broadcasts called for their elimination.

Thankfully, there is no immediate likelihood of genocide in South Africa, but some of the symptoms are evident. People in positions of supposed responsibility denigrate others as coconuts, dogs, colonial misfits or garden boys. Jacob Zuma, president-in-waiting, tells one group of South Africans that they are more patriotic than another on the grounds of their language. Individual worth is ignored; otherness is emphasised.

The second potential ingredient is rhetoric that incites violence and calls on people to kill. Peter Mokaba and Julius Malema are past and present masters of this tactic. Zuma recklessly (if ironically) sings for his machine gun, an extraordinary gesture in a constitutional democracy. One of the unmentionable truths of the current elections is the existence of no-go areas. Last year foreign refugees in similar zones lost lives, limbs and livelihoods.

South Africa’s Human Rights Commission monitors events, identifies violations, seeks redress and raises awareness. Other constitutionally endorsed bodies play key roles. But could they prevent genocide if necessary? Exactly how secure, fearless and effective are national institutions in the face of the deployment policy of the ruling party and the factional blood-letting that diminishes most facets of South African public life?

In April 1994, during the Rwandan genocide, South Africa celebrated liberation and free elections. How sound now are its democracy and human rights culture?

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