Aldous Huxley said “The propagandists purpose is to make one set of people forget that a certain set of people are human” and that is exactly what the hutu extremists intended when they started calling Tutsis cockroaches, because it is quite acceptable for us to kill a cockroach.
As humans we like to separate ourselves from animals and insects by believing that we have a soul whilst animals and insects do not. That is why the every great atrocity committed by man is preceded with the dehumanisation of others.
In Bosnia, the Muslims were called Balija, an unclean Muslim. In Algeria they were called Harkis and in Germany the Jews were called Rats, or vermin, or more popularly, lice. When the Jews were marched to the gas chambers they were told they were simply going to be de-loused, so the showers were a normal part of the process until an insecticide killed them all.
This dehumanisation process isn’t alien to South Africa unfortunately. We are all too familiar with the various derogatory terms used by the apartheid regime, and it was less than a year ago when Penny Sparrow shamelessly reminded us that many white South Africans still liken black South Africans to monkeys. Of course we still have the term Mlungu which is just a white person, until it is said with hatred or the popular term ‘Boer’ still used in a song that celebrates the shooting of boers and let us not forget the wave of xenophobia that swept the country a few years ago when foreigners were simply referred to a ‘Makwerekwere’, an irritating noise in reference to their language, and how does one deal with an irritating noise? You simply get rid of it because it is not human.
It is not only in the large scale groups that dehumanisation takes place, we all do this on a daily basis, from the beggar down on the corner to the gangster who may have burgled your neighbours’ house. We put people into boxes to avoid dealing with the complicated and often wounded essence of the person. It is much easier to simply say ‘Don’t feed the homeless’ or ‘put the gangsters in prison’. The problem is we never deal with the cause of an issue in this way, we simply defer it or pass it on to someone else.
For some years now I have considered this issue and wondered how can overcome this tendency we have towards dehumanisation. And the answer seems obvious, doesn’t it? I just don’t know why this isn’t happening on a much larger scale.
When others de-humanise, we must re-humanise.
The author Mary Lou Kownacki said “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story”
You see, although we all appear to be different, beneath the surface we all have the same hopes, dreams and aspirations. From the immigrant, to the farmer to the gangster, we all want to provide for our families, we all want what’s best for our country and we all want to live in peace, even if we disagree on the best ways to achieve our aims. When we actually take time to listen to each others’ stories with empathy we connect to the humanity within them and achieve a deeper understanding of who they are.
A man who attended one of the Atonement workshops I ran recently and was sharing a story of one of his earliest experiences of apartheid.
When he was 5 years old in the late 70’s, his family was driving from Durban to jo’burg.
His father needed to use the toilet, so they stopped at a roadside diner in the Freestate somewhere. His father was well educated, he worked as a teacher and was obviously loved, admired and respected by his young son. But his father was denied permission to enter the restaurant because he was an Indian. He explained how angry it made him to see his father treated like less of a human by the white people in the restaurant and how, even though he is now in his forties, he still carries some of that anger today.
I challenge any white South African to listen to this story and not understand how so many black South Africans are still angry today. But instead we say things like ‘Get over it’, ‘it ended over 20 years ago’ or ‘it wasn’t me’ not realizing we are playing right into the hands of the extremists who fuel the propaganda machine, steered by a devious foreign PR firm and fed with a simmering anger yet to be addressed.
And I ask the question: What can I do about it? What can you do about it? What can we do about it?
Sure we can have respectful conversations with the homeless digging in our bins and the people selling the big issue on every street corner but we mostly live our lives apart from the angry ones whether they reside in the sprawling townships or the village of Orania.
But there is something more we can do, because the revolution our country needs is not the one where we march on parliament shouting slogans, tipping over bins and throwing bricks. It’s the revolution where we learn to look into the eyes of our fellow citizens and see the humanity that resides within the soul of each and every person.
After years of waiting for someone else to do it, I have started a project where I am collecting the stories of South Africans that have been dehumanised by others. There are plenty of us. You can register to share your story on this site.
Why don’t we re-humanize our country, let’s listen to the stories people from other groups and lets share our stories so that we can find our common humanity before it is completely forgotten.
If you have a story to tell, then we'd love to hear it and share it. Please get in touch.