Political hate speech

2008-11-24 00:00

This week the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) will convene a national conference to address the issue of political intolerance in the coming election. It is a timely initiative. The greater Durban area has already witnessed two efforts by African National Congress supporters to disrupt meetings of the new Congress of the People (Cope). South African society is already violent, and there is every reason to fear that intemperate rhetoric could spark truly vicious political conflict.

This concern is underscored by the statement, published in this newspaper last week, in which committed activist Stephanie Kemp explains her decision to terminate her long-standing membership of the South African Communist Party and the ANC. Kemp lists instance after instance of behaviour and utterances from within the ruling alliance that not only contradict the principles of rational political discourse but actually threaten peace and stability. The most chilling are the words of the ANC member who said of Cope supporters: “They are cockroaches — we kill cockroaches.” It is the very word that ignited the genocide in Rwanda, and when someone as close to party structures as Kemp becomes alarmed, one has to believe that the repeated threat to kill cannot be explained away as hot-headed exaggeration but must be taken literally.

Similarly disturbing is the failure of the new ANC leadership to curb this inflammatory rhetoric and the incipient violence. There are some, including President Kgalema Motlanthe, who decry it, but party leader Jacob Zuma himself has done nothing to check the trend that has been gaining impetus for many months now.

Furthermore, it is not only political opponents who are targeted but also state institutions such as the courts and the judiciary. These assaults are criminal, and must be treated as such. The IEC’s conference is well and good, but words must lead to action. As has been done with the Aids ribbons, every single political leader needs to take a firm public stand against intolerance, and followers who step out of line must be immediately disciplined. There is a very fine distinction between condoning political intolerance and encouraging it, and the consequences could be truly horrific.

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