In a po­lit­i­cally ex­plo­sive at­mos­phere, the hate­ful essence of some words can ac­quire a mur­der­ous rel­e­vance.

Is­sues re­lat­ing to what are called hate crime and hate speech can be so in­volved as to make who­ever is pur­su­ing them throw up their arms in the air in de­s­pair. In South Africa, a coun­try just emerg­ing from cen­turies of a crim­i­nal his­tory, it is more than un­der­stand­able that new laws be put in place to pun­ish any­one who is seen to dis­crim­i­nate, in word or in deed, against a per­son or a com­mu­nity. Af­ter all those years dur­ing which the na­tives of the land were made non-ci­ti­zens and they were called all sorts of de­bas­ing things, it is nat­u­ral that the new po­lit­i­cal or­der try to do away with these hurt­ful prac­tices.

And the same can be said of any other coun­try and/or society in the world, in­clud­ing our own neck of the woods. In all our coun­tries, we have deroga­tory terms used to de­note some­one from an­other eth­nic group. It is safe for me to identify ex­am­ples in Tan­za­nia, where terms like “mun­yama­hanga” and “chasaka” are used in the north­west and north­east re­spec­tively, but mean ex­actly the same thing – foreigner. And this in Julius Ny­erere’s own land.

Thank good­ness that these terms have be­come neutered to the point of be­ing largely hu­mor­ous. Nev­er­the­less, it is easy to imag­ine a po­lit­i­cally ex­plo­sive at­mos­phere in which the hate­ful essence of the words can ac­quire a mur­der­ous rel­e­vance. Once politi­cians’ ap­petites col­lide, they will re­cruit vot­ers from the ceme­tery and pluck word mean­ings from dead dic­tio­nar­ies.

The hor­ren­dous ex­am­ple of Rwanda a quar­ter cen­tury ago is still too fresh in our mem­o­ries for us to be com­pla­cent. More re­cently, Kenya gave us an­other rea­son to be wary when faced with seem­ingly in­nocu­ous ut­ter­ances that hid deeper, darker thoughts.

The de­bate in South Africa has been at times de­light­ful. We all know about words such as kaf­fir, which the racists still use to re­fer to Africans, and which is eas­ily clas­si­fi­able as hate speech, but what about all the “van der Merwe” jokes that all those Xhosa and Venda are so fond of ? Some­one was sug­gest­ing the other day that it is im­pos­si­ble for Africans to be racist; only oth­ers can be racist against them.

Maybe so, but that can­not mean they can­not be guilty of dis­crim­i­na­tion against oth­ers, even other Africans. That is what they are guilty of ev­ery time they hunt down im­mi­grants from Mozam­bique, Zim­babwe and other coun­tries from the north.

If there is any­thing that apartheid did ef­fi­ciently it was to make South African blacks be­lieve they are not Africans, which al­lows them to call their brothers and sis­ters “mak­w­erek­were,” a term which, I hope, will be pro­scribed along­side kaf­fir and other nasty ep­i­thets.

Bu that alone will not be enough to in­cul­cate African­ness in the bo­soms of the South Africans. They need to be taught their his­tory, the his­tory of great men and women who reg­is­tered great feats, in­clud­ing build­ing awe­some em­pires, be­fore they were rudely in­ter­rupted by the white ma­raud­ers. And the his­tory of those valiant men and women who gave their all in the strug­gle to end colo­nial­ism, racism and apartheid.

It is more than sur­pris­ing that it is only now that this coun­try that is so full of his­tory is dis­cussing whether the teach­ing of his­tory should be made com­pul­sory in its schools. Tell me, where else did you expect a na­tion in its in­fancy to go shop­ping for the val­ues and at­tributes that make it a na­tion if it is not from its his­tory, as well as the his­tory of the world?

In­deed, the learn­ing of his­tory is not the nos­tal­gic re­turn to the past to lose our­selves in fic­tions of the idyll that never re­ally was; rather, it is a jour­ney of dis­cov­ery and self-dis­cov­ery that af­fords us a com­pre­hen­sion of our­selves as the only means with which we could ever hope for an un­der­stand­ing of the other, and how we have re­lated with that other over time.

We may even hope to be­gin to un­der­stand how the word kaf­fir, which means un­be­liever to Mus­lims, came to be a term of abuse em­ployed by the

The hor­ren­dous ex­am­ple of Rwanda 1994 is still too fresh in our mem­o­ries for us to be com­pla­cent.” where else did you expect a na­tion in its in­fancy to go shop­ping for the val­ues and at­tributes that make it a na­tion if it is not from its his­tory?

Bo­ers against Africans. Such are the id­io­cies of fas­cists that Adolf Hitler’s Nazis chose a flipped-around In­dian swastika as their em­blem of Aryan iden­tity as they sought to con­vince them­selves that they were the world’s mas­ter race. Non­sense.

. Jenerali Ulimwengu is chair­man of the board of the Raia Mwema news­pa­per and an ad­vo­cate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail:

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