Ralph Mathekga: When victims become killers

The current tensions surrounding xenophobia in South Africa brings to mind Mahmood Mamdani's book titled When Victims Become Killers, writes Ralph Mathekga.

The book focuses on how the idea of nativism was conveniently used to inspire the genocide that took place in Rwanda when the Tutsis and the Hutus turned against each other.

I have read the book a few times, and each and every time I read it, it brings forth how easy a population that sees itself as a victim turns against its own and victimises them. When one looks at the current challenges in South Africa, we have to confront the reality that as a nation, we may be closer  to genocide than we are willing to admit.

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The sad part of the Rwandan genocide experience is that people who used to peacefully exist alongside each other began to embrace their differences, told in the language of who the rightful native and settler native are.

Culture and practices were then highlighted as features that distinguish each other, and such differences were then highlighted as a source of a conflicting value system that could not be resolved.

Source of conflict

Of course, when nations or groups begin to appeal to nationhood as a source of difference, someone's sense of being will then be castigated as a source of conflict in society.

The solution that is often suggested involves the removal or elimination of an alien nation. The source of conflict in this situation is always a struggle for resources; economic resources.

However, the conflict express itself as a selector of who has a right to exist and earn and living, and who has no such rights. Eventually, those who feel victimised by an unjust system which has condemned them to economic desperation, tend to victimise others as perpetrators of the system.

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Whether we call it xenophobia or criminality, the truth is that the sentiments that drive such reactions by those who feel they are the natives of the land, are the same sentiments that drove the genocide in Rwanda; the genocide in Bosnia, and in other countries.

The underlying feature of this horrid social phenomenon is always the same: Victims become killers. Mamdani's book is a warning about how others are firstly defined as culprits of the moral decay, and they are subsequently made into deserving victims.

Even worse is that the state and its institutions in such circumstances often play a distance role whilst the broader population carries out systematic removal of the identified culprits. As Mamdani said, in the case of Rwanda, he faced the reality of a criminal population hiding behind economic frustration.

In this short piece, South Africans need to avoid becoming a criminal population. History will judge us badly for having made victims out of equally desperate people who made it to our shores.

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This is not about the state, it's rather about the population ensuring that it does not become a criminal population. We are becoming a criminal population and once we are done victimising others, we will go ahead and find new victims amongst ourselves.

The sentiments that drive xenophobia never stop unless deliberate efforts are made to change the views of the nation. New victims will be searched. The question is, once this phase is completed, who is next in line to take responsibility for social ills in the country?

- Ralph Mathekga is a political analyst and the author of When Zuma Goes and Ramaphosa's Turn.

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