Beware the politics of dehumanisation


“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was not one left to speak for me.” – Martin Niemoller

It all starts with outrageous and incendiary comments by some of our politicians which our elder statesmen and women would rather ignore. “Don’t even justify it with a response, just ignore them,” they say. But such comments should never be ignored. When a politician calls a government minister a dog, or says they will cut the throats of white people, or on more than one occasion repeats: “we are not calling for the slaughter of white people, at least not for now,” those comments aim to dehumanise.

For supporters of such politicians to start calling a leading journalist a whore, telling her to leave the country and go back to India, we have truly reached a new low that should never go without sanction from our courts. If it is not hate speech then what is it? It is not even that such statements could lead to physical violence, those very supporters already called on their comrades to “go attack her,” “rape her,” “peel that skin off her pink body,” “burn her alive.” 

Yes it is beyond shocking, but this pattern has unfolded time and again over the course of history. Politicians have attempted to dehumanise those they consider opponents, or those they feel threatened by. The formal definition of dehumanisation is the psychological process of demonizing the enemy, making them seem less than human and hence not worthy of humane treatment. This very process of dehumanisation can lead to increased violence, human rights violations, war crimes, and genocide. 

Those making such comments about one of our respected senior journalists are not monsters, any more than those who joined the ranks of the Nazi party in 1939 or those who began to mobilise their Hutu compatriots in Rwanda in 1994. These were all ordinary people who were driven to do the most horrendous deeds by starting to dehumanise those they considered “the enemy.” The first step in this dangerous slippery slope has always been to reduce someone, or a group of people to sub-humans. If this is done effectively enough then pity for them becomes impossible, and violence and even extermination becomes the next step.

When such comments take place within the context of an election campaign, they are even more dangerous as political passions and tensions are already running high. Where is our Human Rights Commission, our Independent Electoral Commission, our National Prosecuting Authority? There have been no arrests, charges or even fines for such inflammatory hate speech which has goaded people to commit the worst violent acts. Such hate speech goes against every tenet of our democratic constitution, and the legacy of ubuntu that Madiba left us. Official condemnation has only come from the South African National Editors Forum and the International Committee to Protect Journalists. Surely that is not good enough.

Dehumanisation always opens the door for cruelty and genocide. No matter what period of history you live through, it is always very difficult psychologically to kill another human being up close and in cold blood, or to afflict atrocities on them. What we need to understand is what allows humans to get to the point where they feel justified treating people like vermin or animals. 

What is it that made apartheid’s foot soldiers pose with the dead bodies of black South Africans? There is only one explanation. Former apartheid soldiers and torturers will tell you just how they were able to commit such dastardly deeds – they were taught in police training college in the 1960’s and 70’s that those belonging to the ranks of the communist party or liberation movements were subhuman and a dangerous threat to a moral society. This is precisely what enabled them to unleash their aggression and justify eliminating people in the most brutal ways imaginable.

If you read the Apartheid regime’s Police Training Manual of the mid-1970’s, and I have seen one of the few remaining copies of it, it reads like a Nazi propaganda manual meant to indoctrinate the security forces against their perceived enemies. It generalised about the races in South Africa, attributed negative characteristics to any group that was not white, and developed a narrative about how each group was a threat to the social fabric of a God-fearing nation. By the time the police recruits were finished with their training they believed they were on a Godly mission to exterminate the enemy by all means necessary. 

But dehumanisation seems to be a common theme throughout human history. The Nazis had referred to Jews as rats or subhumans “Untermenschen.” The Nazis had seen Jews as enemies of civilisation, and called them lice, parasites, bacteria or vectors of contagion. Hitler claimed he would “get rid of the virus.” The evil that was exacted on the European Jewry as a result strains the limits of the imagination in terms of its horror. Never has the world seen such perfected cruelty to other human beings. In the end when a sampling of Nazi war criminals were tried for their crimes, the writer Hannah Arendt, who attended Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichman’s trial, observed that men such as Eichman were not monsters but ordinary people who were terrifyingly normal.

Similarly this was also the observation of Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela who spent 46 hours interviewing Eugene de Kock in prison – she found him not to be a monster but an ordinary man. Her book A Human Being Died That Night about her observations of De Kock scrutinised how and why an apparently ordinary man became murder-in-chief for a brutal regime and ultimately characterised as prime evil. 

And while South Africa was transitioning to democracy and Nelson Mandela ushered in a new democratic dispensation, Rwandan Hutus were preparing for mass murder. The Hutus involved in the genocide had called the Tutsis cockroaches “inyenzi,” or snakes “inzoka” who needed to be killed. In each case human beings were ascribed the characteristics of animals or insects, giving the impression they were vile, dirty and sneaky. This was in every way similar to what had happened 55 years earlier in Nazi Germany. The difference was the methods used to exterminate the perceived threat – one was a killing orgy in the plain light of day and the other a calculated systematic method of mass extermination hidden from sight. 

However, human beings have managed to wreak havoc on each other, there are lessons for every generation, and we best heed those lessons if history is not to keep repeating itself. Calling people dogs, generalising about races of people in our country, and calling for journalists to be gruesomely attacked or killed is not only unacceptable but takes us to the precipice, beyond which lies only an abyss. It is amazing how fast a country can slide down a slippery slope to madness, and it is up to our politicians, our justice department, our media and in the end up to each one of us to ensure we don’t go down that path.

Shannon Ebrahim is the foreign editor for the Independent Media Group.