In April, 15 years ago, right-wingers gunned down Chris Hani, the popular ANC leader, outside his home.
A the time, South Africa was at the height of transition negotiations from white minority rule and white rightwing leaders featured much more prominently in public debates than today. Their incendiary talk, depicting Hani as the militant leader of ANC terrorist shock troops, contributed to a climate in which the murder became possible.
15 years later we still have prominent politicians, like the ANC youth league's Julius Malema, Cosatu's Zwelinzima Vavi and others who see no problem in a war talk that wants to kill for the supreme leader, exterminates cockroaches and does other ghastly things to the enemy. And then they feign ignorance, engage in linguistic and non-sensical acrobatics when these things indeed happen.
No such war talk is mere 'figures of speech'. And it was never so.
In 1993, Shaun Johnson observed:
"Before the assassin made up his mind to take Chris Hani's life, Hernus Kriel, from the platform of parliament, described Umkhonto we Sizwe as 'a bunch of criminals'. A powerful newspaper told its readers Hani was mustering a terrifying, vengeful 'Black People's Army'. Before lawless youths went on their stabbing and stealing spree on Wednesday, ANC Youth League leader Peter Mokaba told a gathering of youngsters: 'The young lions must not only bark and roar, but you must bite'. And before this whole sorry saga started, we had Eugene Terreblanche exhorting his followers to revolution, Inkathata members being encouraged to 'bugger up' the ANC, PAC leaders endorsing the slogan 'one settler, one bullet'. The list goes on.
Every one of these people will today swear they didn't mean what you thought they meant. These were euphemisms, metaphors, allegories, parables...they didn't really mean it literally. Well. It is too late to tell that to the people who listened to, and believed, those words. They missed the subtleties. Not nearly enough people in our country can read. Pitifully few will have been familiar with John Locke's wise observation that 'we should have had a great many fewer disputes in the world if words were taken for what they are, the signs of our ideas only, and not for things themselves.' ...Chilling statements are commonplace in South Africa today. It is fair to ask whether we are not now reaping their mean harvest." (Strange Days Indeed, Bantam, 1993)
Words matter. Discourses circulate, from the mundane and everyday life to politics, to academic discourse, and so on. How can we combat crime and violence when the words of our leaders mirror and perpetuate these?