South Africa’s politicians must guard against killer narratives

Supporters of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters hold a mock coffin of the governing ANC during an election rally in 2014. Reuters/Skyler Reid

Humans are a storytelling species that is immersed in and perceives the world through the narratives that shape its emotional and ethical realities.

The transference of history and communal memory through narrative solidifies a collective identity that binds a people together. It is through stories that humans know who they are, make sense of the present, and imagine and plan for the future.

In a rapidly globalising world characterised by deepening inequalities, economic uncertainties, deadly terrorist attacks and unprecedented human migration, there is heightened insecurity and fear.

Opportunistic and unscrupulous political leaders are adept at conjuring the regressive and unrealistic story lines that feed these insecurities. Paranoid narratives were evident in the campaign pursued by the pro-Brexit Boris Johnson in the UK. They are staple fare for Republican presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump in the US election.

Such narratives can provide the populace with a false sense of safety and control in a complex and confusing world. But the result is to perpetuate discrimination, scapegoating, xenophobia and ethnocentrism.

South African politicians need to be alert to the dangers of inflammatory political rhetoric. In the countdown to the country’s most hotly-contested municipal elections since the end of apartheid, deadly violence has already been witnessed.

Words have power

Studies suggest that killer narratives have their genesis in a climate of insecurity and fear. They gather momentum as political leaders mobilise aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism. This they do by exploiting stories of humiliation, victimisation and vengeance.

These factors were at play in the inflammatory rhetoric leading up to the Second World War and the Holocaust, as well as in other genocides, mass killings and atrocities.

The 1994 Rwandan genocide, which claimed more than 800,000 lives, was preceded by a legacy of fear and insecurity caused by repeated mass killings. These killings since 1959 were incited by an exploitative colonial discourse of racial superiority (Tutsi) and inferiority (Hutu) based on ethnicity. During the 1994 carnage, Hutu hardliners inflamed the Hutu people by stoking communal memories of injustices committed by the Tutsi. This ignited brutal revenge.

Research suggests that genocidal discourses have distinctive features. These involve a deadly combination of “supremacist rhetoric and narratives of extreme vulnerability”. The propaganda narratives of Nazi Germany during the Second World War illustrate this. First there was the recreation and positioning of an Aryan (German) master race. This master race was then projected as a “victim” of an all-powerful but inferior (Jewish) evil enemy. That enemy was now conspiring to destroy the nation.

Dangers signs in South Africa

Political rhetoric and public discourses have become incrementally racist and divisive in South Africa. This must be considered against a backdrop of a nation gripped by deep-rooted insecurity. This is the result of a failing economy, widening inequality and poverty, violent protests, rampant unemployment, crime and government corruption.

South Africa is vulnerable to manipulative politicking. Such rhetoric exploits fear, ignites collective emotions and mobilises the electorate with polarising narratives of victimisation, racism and revenge. Destructive narratives and pre-election violence must serve as an early warning system in a troubled nation. In the words of Jacques Semelin:

The killing starts with the use of words disqualifying the [victims’] humanity … simple words, a few short phrases, pronounced in the context of threat and fear, open the country’s future to apocalypse of mass murder.

Elections and dangers of inflammatory language

South Africa is poised for fiercely contested municipal elections in August. These elections, considered the most important since the end of white minority rule in 1994, could considerably dilute the dominance of the governing African National Congress (ANC) in key urban areas.

In an increasingly volatile country where public protests often turn violent, attention must be paid to the inflammatory rhetoric of political leaders and influencers.

The recent deadly and destructive pre-election violence around the mayoral candidacy in the Tshwane metropole is a case in point.

Amid the mayhem, a local official of the ANC Youth League chillingly advocated the looting of foreign-owned shops. Such rhetoric is incendiary in a country predisposed to public violence that is often linked to xenophobic attacks.

Also, the deputy agricultural minister had a sinister warning for voters in a campaign speech. He declared that South Africa without the ANC would be akin to a country without oxygen:

What would you do without oxygen? If there is no oxygen, then you would die. Everything would die, I’m telling you. If anything happens to the ANC there would be chaos.

This deadly metaphor is further played out in the scenes of the Economic Freedom Fighters carrying mock coffins at electoral rallies symbolising the “burying” of their political rivals. The party’s leader, Julius Malema, is known for his divisive rhetoric inciting violence. Earlier this year, he threatened that the “barrel of a gun” should remove President Jacob Zuma’s government if it continued responding violently to protest movements.

History teaches us that powerful destructive narratives have traction in a climate of insecurity and fear. Studies reveal that killer narratives fostering paranoia, conspiracy and vengeance dominate public spaces prior to mass killings and hate crimes.

In a vulnerable South Africa, there are disturbing signs towards polarising discourses and growing political violence. Inflammatory public narratives should serve as an early warning system for all South Africans. And civil society must be on guard to hold politicians to account for the destructive rhetoric they spew.

The Conversation is a non-profit + your donation is tax deductible. Help knowledge-based, ethical journalism today.