Melanie Verwoerd

The dangers of 'us vs them' creeping into political rhetoric

2018-06-27 08:38
US first lady Melania Trump. (Andrew Harnik, AP)

US first lady Melania Trump. (Andrew Harnik, AP)

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"God forgives many things, but God never forgives us the wrong we do to a child," Fiela Komoetie famously said in Dalene Matthee's renowned Afrikaans book, Fiela se Kind.

These words kept coming back to me over the last two weeks as I was watching the awful scenes of children of asylum seekers being separated from their parents in America. During the years I worked for UNICEF I met many children to whom the most horrific things had been done. I will never be able to understand how adults can do so much harm and inflict so much pain to vulnerable and innocent little beings.

We must never forget that children are totally innocent in all the political games as well as the violent crimes and wars of adults. They are not the ones who cause the life-threatening conditions that make their parents flee in search of safety and peace. Nor are they the ones who have any role to play in the narcissistic games of politicians. They were brought into this world by adults who have a collective responsibility to love and protect them. Yet, they always seem to bear the brunt of adult cruelty.

As I watched the images of officials tearing screaming children away from their hysterical mothers, I wondered what was going on inside those uniformed guards. I presume that many of them have children. Do they not think about their own children when they take these traumatised children away from their only source of security? How do they sleep at night, having tucked in their own children? How do they answer when asked: "What were you doing today?"

More importantly, how will they answer in future when their children ask: "Where were you when all this was happening?"

This is of course not unique to recent events in America. In all cases of severe human rights abuses these questions arise. Generations of German children have asked these questions of their ancestors in relation to Nazi Germany as have children in Rwanda, Bosnia and here in South Africa.

I have always wondered how, for example, apartheid security policemen did the most inhumane things to people and yet functioned normally within society and their families. How did they torture, rape and kill people during the day and at night made love to someone? How did they sit in church on Sunday and prayed to a God that demands of them to love their neighbour like themselves? 

The answer of course lies in the fact that these men (and sometimes women) do not see the people they abuse as their neighbour in the biblical sense of the word. They see them as the "other"; an "other" that threatens their precious existence and that they have to protect the "us" from.

The moment the "otherness" is created it is a very easy jump to a total dehumanisation of the "other". Backed up by some ideological or religious narrative based on fear and hatred, these enforcers can do so with very little or no regard for the pain they cause. As we have seen recently in America they will justify it as a sacred duty to enforce the law. Laws which were written by politicians who know very well that using fear is the easiest way to win votes and power.

That is what made South Africa so different for the two or more decades after 1994. We built a country on hope – not fear – in which most of us embraced "usness" instead "otherness".

The danger is that we are fast moving into a phase where "otherness" is again becoming part of our political narrative. Powerful politicians are using the same type of race and ethnicity-based narratives that were and are still being used the world over, to mobilise people and to put or keep these politicians in power.

There is absolutely no question that we MUST correct the injustices of the past, but we can't do that by using the same narratives and/or ideology that caused those injustices. By referring to Indian people, coloured people, African people and white people as uniform groups with specific characteristics, beliefs and ideologies these politicians are again invoking the concept of "otherness" on which apartheid and many other crimes against humanity were built.

Of course, over the short term it will work for them. They will get votes based on hatred, anger and fear. The problem is that this "us vs them" strategy always ends up in big human tragedies.

We need to be very vigilant because it will creep up on us. If there is something the Rwandan genocide must teach us, it is how the language of hatred can gradually enter the political narrative. Not much attention was paid to it at first, but it festered and grew and suddenly the boil exploded and left around a million people dead in three months.

It is crucial that we expose and dismiss politicians and community leaders the world over who use prejudice and hatred to feed their hunger for power.

I still don't know what US first lady Melania Trump was trying to do or say with the bizarre jacket she wore on her visit to the separated children. But I do know that our answer to her and all politicians the world over should be: "Yes, we DO care. We care about everyone and not just those who look like us, speak like us or share a common history. The question is, why don't you?"

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    united states  |  politics  |  race  |  human rights abuses
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